French PM at bay as trade deadline looms

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EDOUARD Balladur has asked his ministers to draw up a list of priorities for reform just as he faces probably his most testing time since he became France's Prime Minister last March.

With three weeks before the 15 December deadline for agreement in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) negotiations, where French objections to the agricultural provisions are one of the main obstacles, pressure will be on him from all sides either to conclude an agreement or to hold out for concessions.

On another, ominous, plane an ultimatum by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria giving French residents in the former North African colony one month to leave the country or face assassination runs out this weekend. The ultimatum was delivered by a fringe Islamic group after three French consular officials in Algiers were abducted then released unharmed last month.

After detaining a number of suspected sympathisers of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) resident in France earlier this month, and swooping on Kurdish nationalists suspected of organising a guerrilla campaign in Europe, France - previously often accused of being ambivalent in its attitude to Middle Eastern violence - has shown no signs of compromise.

This could make the Islamic extremists who have threatened the French in Algeria - thousands have left the country in the past few weeks - more determined. Some sources said the campaign against the FIS and the Kurds, all close to the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), was partly aimed at nipping in the bud the formation of organisations that could be used by Iran for armed attacks.

On Sunday, Mr Balladur held a meeting with his ministers to review the conservative government's progress over the past seven months and discuss tactics. He asked them to come up with suggestions for short-term reform, to be enacted over the next six months, and long- term measures for the full five-year legislature. The Gaullist Prime Minister said the conclusions would be published next month.

While the Sunday meeting was apparently designed to demonstrate that the government was both flexible and dynamic, French sources said that Mr Balladur's main obsession at the moment was Gatt. They said a series of concessions over the past few weeks, especially the withdrawal of a plan to restructure Air France after strikers invaded runways at the Paris airports, had been motivated by a desire to settle all other contentious issues while Gatt was still on the table.

According to these sources, Paris does not believe that there can be any extension to the 15 December deadline, imposed by the US Congress, for a conclusion of the Uruguay Round.

A statement by Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, ruling out any changes to last year's Blair House agreement on agriculture, accepted by the European Commission but rejected by France, prompted Mr Balladur and President Francois Mitterrand to stress France's continued opposition during a Franco-Spanish summit in Toledo on Saturday.

'If nothing moves, there will be no agreement by France,' Mr Balladur said. 'And until now nothing has moved. Europe has made its suggestions and we are waiting for a reply.'

An accepted wisdom over the past year has been that France had little room for manoeuvre over Blair House because of the traditional militancy of its farmers.

There are, however, few signs of this militancy these days. Last week, the government earmarked a package of aid, totalling 1.5bn francs ( pounds 170m), for farmers. Much of this will ease interest payments on credits and lighten social charges - where farmers say they are especially badly hit,two areas where farmers say they are particularly badly hit.

Le Monde said last week that the government had persuaded farmers' union leaders not to do anything before 15 December that could make it look as though the government was acting under pressure, while promising full support for their interests in Brussels.