The possibility that France, a mover and shaker in the campaign for European unity, would turn its back on that long-sought goal would have been unthinkable a year ago.
But European officials are beginning to fear the worst: that next Sunday French voters will reject the European Community's sweeping plans for unity.Recent polls indicate the French are evenly divided, with up to 40 percent undecided.
A no vote by France would kill plans to form, by 1999, a political and monetary union with a common foreign policy and single currency. Leaders of the EC's 12 nations drew up the accord in the Dutch town of Maastricht last December.
The British government intends to withdraw the treaty from consideration by parliament if the French spurn it.
But in a move to boost European unity, Germany today cut its interest rates a quarter percent, the first time in five years. Other EC nations view Germany's high interest rates as a hindrance to their own economic recovery.
Some French citizens fear German economic policy could overshadow that of its partners in a European union, and Germany may hope the rate cut will show that the Bundesbank is willing to act on other nations' concerns.
Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said after the Bundesbank's decision: "I expect positive effects on the French referendum from the lowering of rates."
Danish voters defeated the treaty in June, but it was approved later in an Irish referendum and by parliaments in Greece and Luxembourg. All member states must ratify the agreement for it to take effect.
EC officials say there are no formal contingency plans for a French rejection; but there is increasing talk about what would follow.
"It would take months, if not years, to mend the broken porcelain if it should happen," said Jim Cloos, Luxembourg's deputy permanent representative to the community.
Britain, the current EC president, probably would emphasize the community's other tasks, including creation of a single market of 379 million consumers by year's end. The ultimate goal is an economic bloc to rival the United States and Japan.
"Maastricht deserves approval, but it is by no means the whole agenda," Prime Minister John Major of Britain said recently.
Most rules for the single market will be in place by Dec. 31 so people, money, goods and services will flow freely across borders, but the market would be weaker without the single currency envisioned in the union treaty.
Disarray over how to proceed after a defeat would be likely to cause further delay in world trade talks, now stalled by a dispute between the United States and the EC over government payments to farmers.
European currency markets, roiled in recent weeks by the tumbling dollar and strengthening German mark, would likely be hit hard by a French "no."
Speculation is rampant that a defeat would further weaken the currencies of Britain, Italy and possibly others against the mark.