COMMENT: My beef with the French: not only is this ban gutless, but it's against your interests

TONY BLAIR has every reason to feel betrayed by his friend Lionel Jospin.

The Government handled the beef crisis with enormous common sense and courage, negotiating patiently with the French in the face of mass hysteria and calculated, Europhobic provocation in Britain. In return, Mr Blair has received an act of short-sighted gutlessness from Paris - just the kind of narrow, nationalistic act that would have been hailed as a triumph by the Daily Mail if the countries' roles had been reversed.

French ministers said in private yesterday that they had no choice. An independent committee of scientists had, once again, declared British beef exports to be risky. Politically and legally, they said, it would have been suicidal to have ignored this advice and lifted the ban. Legally? Recent manslaughter charges against ministers and officials who failed to prevent HIV-infected blood entering French blood banks in the Eighties jolted French public officials. Fear of similar actions against today's ministers, 10 years or 15 years down the road, certainly played a part in their obstinacy.

Politically? More than 80 per cent of French people oppose British beef imports; the centre-right opposition parties were preparing to have some fun at Jospin's expense if the ban had been lifted. The Communists and Greens within the Jospin coalition opposed British beef imports. There was no domestic gain from scrapping the embargo and plenty of gain - or avoidance of pain - in maintaining it.

In any case, French officials say, they have a perfect right to put the health of the public first. The science of BSE is confused. It is in the interests of all consumers, including British ones, that the "principle of precaution" should take precedence over trade and neighbourly relations.

These are depressing and disingenuous arguments. With a little courage and far-sightedness, the Jospin government could have abolished the ban and ridden out what would have been, in all probability, a brief domestic squall. Until last week, all sides were convinced that they intended to do so.

The second report of the French food safety agency, commenting on the "additional reassurances" negotiated with Britain last month, was more negative than the French government had expected. In effect, the scientists passed the buck and the Jospin government dropped it. Their first report in September was categorical: British beef is not yet safe; the ban should not be lifted. The second report was fudged: an "unquantifiable" risk remained, and it was up to the politicians to decide whether to lift the ban or not.

There was more than enough wiggle room here to allow Mr Jospin to comply with EU law and admit the tiny quantities of British beef that would have been likely to travel. A number of options were discussed by ministers on Wednesday night, including a conditional lifting of the ban, with a threat to clamp down again if new doubts about BSE emerged. In the event, the ministers went for the domestically most convenient option: no change in the French law, and a vague offer to re-open negotiations.

The scientific arguments are, frankly, impenetrable to 99.9 per cent of people, including ministers and journalists on both sides of the Channel. The French food safety agency took one view; the European Union's scientific steering committee took another. The French government chose to back its own committee, which is exactly what the Eurosceptic press in Britain would have insisted that any British government should do.

In purely national terms, this decision was sensible and comfortable enough. In terms of European politics and France's wider and long-term interests, it was an act of myopia and cowardice. The decision ignored France's obligations under EU law. It was taken in the full knowledge that it would gravely damage Tony Blair's efforts to sweeten British public attitudes to Europe (a campaign that is in France's broader interests). And it risked starting a tit-for-tat of British consumer boycotts and French farmers' protests that could plunge cross-Channel relations into deep crisis.

The decision threatens France's own interests as a great food trading nation and the principal cash beneficiary of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. The "precaution principle" and the craving for "100 per cent risk- free" food may no longer sound so sensible to French ears if, say, the Dutch or Greeks start to make unreasonable hygiene demands on the runny and smelly raw milk cheeses that are among the glories of French farmers and exporters.

The Europe Minister, Pierre Moscovici, and the Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, raised these fundamental interests at Wednesday's meeting, but without success. The "Aids blood" precedent was not raised specifically, but officials insist that it was an "important factor" in the background. Personally, I don't buy it.

The parallel is a poor one. The ministers and officials who were accused of killing blood-transfusion patients ignored, for bureaucratic convenience, a clearly established threat to health and life. In this case, the French ministers were being asked to back a categorical declaration by EU scientists (British beef exports are safe) against a vague conclusion by French scientists (it may not be). They were also being asked to obey EU law. If they had lifted the beef embargo, it is difficult to imagine that anyone would have brought a successful legal argument that Mr Jospin and his minister had behaved negligently.

Blood is a convenient excuse. Wednesday's decision was a capitulation to domestic lobbies and short-term political pressures. As a failure to grasp and argue for France's wider European interests, it was a decision worthy of any British Conservative government in the last 20 years.

The Blair Government deserved better. It was right to try to negotiate with France and thereby avoid a lengthy and messy legal action that threatened to - and now will - ruin all hope of re-establishing the reputation of British beef in other European Union countries. For its pains, it received a kick in the teeth. What a Christmas gift for the Eurosceptics.