WHEN French President Francois Mitterrand announced that Sunday's referendum in favor of the European Community's Maastricht Treaty left neither "victors nor vanquished" within France, he might have been describing himself.
Mr. Mitterrand received the "yes" vote he so cherished as a means of rekindling the fires of European union after Denmark's "no" vote in June, but by such a slim margin that question marks will still hang over Maastricht.
Predictions of Sunday's vote were hardly in when French Socialist Party First Secretary Laurent Fabius announced the positive vote was a victory for Mitterrand. But the French leader cannot be considered a victor, in part because of the just-over-51-percent "yes" vote, but also because the three-month Maastricht campaign did not result in the French right's acrimonious splintering - long thought to be the Socialist leader's goal.
Exit polls reinforced the common assumption that Mitterrand will face an opposition-controlled Parliament after legislative elections set for March. Opposition leaders, from former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing to Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, insisted any divisions on the center-right would be overcome in the common goal of turning out the Socialist's parliamentary working majority.
At the same time, Mitterrand cannot be considered vanquished. Few anti-Mitterrand voters followed some conservative leaders' advice and used the referendum as an opportunity to sanction the president. Half of all voters also said in exit polls that they want Mitterrand to stay in office through the end of his second seven-year mandate in 1995.
What Sunday's vote did reveal, however, is a sharp split between those French who are comfortable and believe they will benefit from European unification, and those who are living precariously amid the current economic downturn and who view Europe as a threat.
"What the vote so strikingly reveals is the existence of two sociological Frances, two cultural Frances, split between those on top who are flourishing and those below who are suffering," says Olivier Duhamel, a political observer. He notes that two-thirds of farmers, 60 percent of laborers, and more than half of average company employees voted no, while better than 80 percent of managers and the country's "intellectual class" voted yes.
While cities like Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, and Lille voted for the treaty, wide swatches of France's rural regions voted against. "What we have is a France divided," says pollster Jer Jaffree, not along the traditional right-left fault line of the past, but "between the educated and comfortable, who voted massively yes, and a popular France that voted no."
Mr. Jaffree and others say the referendum vote does not indicate a "shaking up" of the country's political divisions, since the hybrid mix of far-right nationalists, rural Gaullists, communists, and some disenchanted socialists who voted against, and that of European socialists, centrists, and urban Gaullists who voted for Maastricht, are not going to hold.
Mr. Chirac, a presidential hopeful whose Gaullist Rally for the Republic eschewed his advice to vote yes, said he would put his future in the hands of party activists. No one believes his leadership role is threatened, however, but perhaps even enhanced by a weak affirmative vote that reflects the Chirac's own misgivings about Maastricht.
What the referendum does reveal, these observers add, is the new importance of issues such as the rural world's survival, suburban isolation, and adapting democratic institutions to a unifying Europe.
Most hopeful for many observers is the way the Maastricht campaign revivified French political debate and participatory democracy. More than 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls for a referendum that, when Mitterrand announced it in June, elicited little public interest.
"The voter turnout shows that the public can become engaged in political life and a tendency toward de-politicization reversed if the right questions are asked," one observer says.