French minister hints at softer line on world trade talks

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The Independent Online
THE SENIOR French minister handling the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) negotiations has hinted that France may be more flexible than it has so far appeared over the troubled world commerce negotiations.

Gerard Longuet, the conservative Industry and Foreign Trade Minister, said in parliament on Tuesday that France alone could not hold up the talks. 'With 1 per cent of the world's population and 6 per cent of world trade, our country cannot, on its own, paralyse the world negotiations, which it itself needs since it is the world's fourth largest exporter,' he said.

The government denied yesterday it had adopted a more conciliatory stance at the talks but said it was better to join forces with allies than stand alone and spark a European crisis. A government spokesman, Nicolas Sarkozy, said the opposition was wrong to accuse the conservative government of backtracking on its defence of French farmers by failing to veto a farm trade deal between the US and the European Community discussed at an EC meeting last month.

In an exchange with Jean-Pierre Soisson, a centrist politician who was agriculture minister in the Socialist government which was voted out of office in March, Mr Longuet blamed the Socialists for the Blair House compromise with the US to reduce some European farm exports. It was the first statement to the National Assembly on Gatt by a minister with a reputation for tough bargaining.

The conservative government has said that it would be willing to use its veto within the EC and spark a world trade crisis to scupper the agriculture accord. For France's partners, the problem until now has been to gauge whether Paris really would exercise its right of veto or whether such talk is bluff aimed at extracting concessions.

Mickey Kantor, the US Trade Representative, is due to discuss the impasse with Sir Leon Brittan, the European Commissioner in charge of Gatt, on Tuesday.

'The government's duty,' Mr Longuet said, 'is to defend French interests by building around those interests alliances capable of bringing in all the EC.' It was not the government's aim 'to have the morbid satisfaction of being right alone and finding itself on the evening of the battle . . . isolated and beaten, in reality defeated as far as our employment, industry and agriculture are concerned.'

Mr Longuet told Mr Soisson that the Blair House agreement was 'your responsibility and we have inherited it'.

Mr Longuet's statement was watched by leaders of the main French farmers' unions who have said they will decide on what new action to take after next week's talks in Brussels. Farmers say the combined effect of Gatt and EC farm reform will drive more than half of the French peasantry off the land and change the fabric of French society.