Balladur to allow MPs say on Gatt: Confidence vote indicates French optimism

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EDOUARD BALLADUR, the French Prime Minister, said yesterday that parliament would hold a confidence vote on his government's handling of the Gatt issue next week.

Mr Balladur's decision, announced after the weekly cabinet meeting, seemed to indicate that he was optimistic about a successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round. With an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, his conservative coalition is normally guaranteed victory in any confidence vote. The vote is expected on Tuesday, on the eve of the deadline for the Gatt talks set by the US Congress.

If the Gatt talks were going badly, and if this were blamed on France, a parliamentary debate could open up a serious division between Mr Balladur's Gaullist RPR party and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF). UDF leaders have been quietly insistent about the need for a new international trade accord, while hardliners demanding a revision of the Blair House agreement on agriculture have tended to come from among the Gaullists.

Yesterday, Mr Balladur said agriculture was no longer a problem. Earlier, French ministers had either welcomed progress on agriculture or said there could be no agreement on farm policy until there was an overall 'global' trade agreement, a position particularly represented by Alain Juppe, the Gaullist Foreign Minister.

In the National Assembly, Mr Balladur said the next three days would be crucial for Gatt, adding that the only real agreement would be decided between all the 116 Gatt nations. Earlier, leaving the Elysee Palace after the cabinet meeting, Mr Balladur said he was 'not unhappy' with the progress of the Gatt negotiatons this week.

Sir Leon Brittan, the European Commissioner negotiating on behalf of the 12 EU members, said in a radio interview that he was '70 per cent' sure of a Gatt accord being ready by next Wednesday.

At the Geneva headquarters of Gatt, South Korea was the first country to protest at the proposed deal. The South Korean Trade Minister, Huh Shin Haeng, walked out of talks on market access, saying his government could never agree to a deal opening the South Korean market to imported rice and hinting at a crisis to come.

In the corridors the word is that there will be many a crisis twixt now and the 15 December deadline as the pressure mounts to bring to a successful conclusion the most complex and far-reaching multilateral trade deal ever attempted.

'It's inevitable. With a week to go everyone is going for broke. But we are optimistic of a deal, we are so close it cannot fail now,' said one insider.

There will be a slow build- up to the frenzy on Tuesday, the date by which the Gatt director-general, Peter Sutherland, has insisted all the texts must be ready for the final signatures. The bulk of the work has already been done and it is into this basic text that results of the final negotiations must be woven. Mr Sutherland is determined that this last week should not degenerate into a free-for-all, with delegates unpicking deals that have already been done.

Not everyone will be happy with the result. There is much resentment, now resignation, on the part of the developing world that it has been given only a bit part in a drama played out between the world's most powerful trading blocs, the US, Europe and the countries of the Pacific rim