The Gaullist Prime Minister said he needed to be in Paris to guide his government's programme through parliament. The decision, given his economic expertise, was a strange one and there appeared to be no real domestic imperative.
At his first international meeting since he became Prime Minister in March, the European summit in Copenhagen last week, officials were at pains to stress Mr Balladur's good working relationship with the Socialist President, and nothing apparent has happened since to spoil that impression.
There are even suggestions in the French media that Mr Mitterrand is anxious to promote Mr Balladur's image as a possible successor for the presidency and thereby bar the way to Jacques Chirac, the head of the Gaullist RPR party and the most likely next president.
While the President retains a say in foreign affairs and defence, Mr Balladur, with a huge parliamentary majority behind him, is the real executive authority in France. His decision not to attend the Tokyo summit therefore appeared to have definite symbolic value. During the last, 1986- 88 left-right 'cohabitation', Mr Chirac, then prime minister, attended all international meetings with Mr Mitterrand.
It may be that Mr Balladur was trying to distance himself from the troubled General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) dossier. France opposes the Washington Gatt compromise on agriculture, negotiated for EC countries by the European Commission last November, and Mr Balladur has criticised a unilateral US decision to impose levies on flat-rolled steel imports from France and 18 other countries to counter alleged dumping. Despite this public posture, other EC countries believe France will eventually have to make serious concessions on Gatt.
On Monday, Mr Balladur said that there could be no trade agreement 'if the sanctions on imported steel, particularly French steel, are not lifted'.
The Prime Minister, interviewed on Europe 1 radio yesterday, dismissed any suggestion that his decision not to go to Tokyo reflected tensions with Mr Mitterrand.
'Is it conceivable that, on a subject which involves France's future and the French and European economies, there could be any disagreement?' he asked.Reuse content