France promises EU trade debate

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THE FRENCH government, apparently fearing that progress in the Gatt trade talks may not be sufficient to meet its objections, has promised a full parliamentary debate if the European Commission - representing all European Union members - signs an accord.

Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister, told the National Assembly on Wednesday that France would not be 'locked into a calendar which is not our own', a reference to the 15 December deadline fixed by the United States Congress.

France has been particularly recalcitrant on the Blair House compromise on agriculture negotiated in Washington a year ago, threatening to veto this part of the Gatt agreement and provoke a European crisis.

In recent weeks, although there have been signs that Edouard Balladur's conservative government is anxious to conclude an agreement, politicians' statements have tended to be pessimistic, in order not to weaken Paris's negotiating position in what has become a US- French stand-off.

Mr Balladur told deputies on Wednesday: 'I favour an agreement but not at all costs.' The Prime Minister had earlier told deputies from the conservative coalition that France 'had obtained nothing in all that we have asked for'.

Mr Juppe said that, at the European foreign ministers' meeting next Thursday, he hoped 'sufficient progress will have been made for us to examine a real accord'. He told Laurent Fabius, the former Socialist prime minister, that 'the national representation' - parliament - would be consulted.

With a huge conservative majority in the National Assembly, the government is more or less assured of support for whatever position it recommends.

Although government ministers appeared pessimistic, commentaries in the French press yesterday were more upbeat, saying that the official French line stemmed from a question of strategy.

Franz-Olivier Giesbert, the editor of Le Figaro, asked: 'Can France permit itself to block a new Gatt agreement on its own?' Saying that Mr Balladur had apparently chosen to be tough with the US, he wrote that 'the hour of truth is approaching', and added that France would be the scapegoat for failure if it blocked agreement.

Mr Balladur needed to 'marry the irreconcilable and find a compromise which will concede nothing. As easy as putting a camel through the eye of a needle. He's going to need some skill'.