France warns on farm deal

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FRANCE yesterday underlined its opposition to a US-EC farm deal, threatening to add to the worsening climate of transatlantic trade relations.

Jean-Pierre Soisson, the agriculture minister, said he had the government's full support for his stance should such an agreement be proposed to the Council of Ministers. 'France will say loud and clear that it cannot approve this deal and since this will be the first time a formal agreement is proposed it will be 'No' and I shall veto it,' he said.

The agreement concerns trade in agricultural products. It followed a US-EC split that threatened to ruin six years of international trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The row was stitched up by agreeing one deal covering agriculture - domestic support for farmers and export policy - and another on oilseeds.

The European Commission has been working hard to avert confrontation, and much of the French attitude has been interpreted in Brussels as bluff. But the unpredictable nature of European politics means that French threats cannot be written off.

The EC will seek to reassure the US by putting the oilseeds agreement to a vote on 8 March, when foreign ministers meet in Brussels. Rene Steichen, the EC farm commissioner, said yesterday he did not believe that France would veto this part of the deal, which many analysts consider is very favourable to France's interests.

The main part of the deal, covering trade in a wide range of farm goods, is unlikely to come to a vote before the French elections next month. The combination of a new US administration, a world economic slump and fractious European governments is providing a poor climate for the Gatt talks. President Bill Clinton is seeking to bolster his position with tough- sounding comments on trade policy. But the EC also has problems with the Gatt talks.