Paris seeks to bolster Bonn ties: Franco-German talks start today after rifts over Gatt and ERM

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EDOUARD BALLADUR, on the eve of talks in Germany with Helmut Kohl, said yesterday that the future of Europe depended on good relations between Paris and Bonn.

Reacting to talk of friction since he became French prime minister, Mr Balladur sought to head off any suggestion that this was the fault of his government, pointing out that the main problems - policy towards former Yugoslavia, the Gatt trade talks and monetary issues - all existed before the right won the French parliamentary elections in March. He said that he was 'sometimes surprised to read or to hear that relations between France and Germany have deteriorated since the arrival of the new government'.

While the sources of discord may pre-date the Gaullist-led government, the biggest crunch came at the end of last month when the Bundesbank refused to lower interest rates, causing a crisis in the European Monetary System and deepening the differences between the two countries.

This week, there has been a series of bilateral contacts ahead of Mr Balladur's trip to Germany tomorrow and a flurry of statements that both partners were determined to keep their privileged relationship a priority. A commentary in Le Monde yesterday, by Andre Fontaine, a former editor of the newspaper, said the relationship's 'hour of truth' had arrived but on neither side did 'a break appear to be a solution'.

Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister, discussing talks in Dresden on Tuesday with Klaus Kinkel, his German counterpart, told the Catholic daily La Croix that, whatever the tensions between Paris and Bonn, 'the objective and emotional reasons to stay together are such that there is no question of divorcing'.

'The future of Europe rests on a good Franco-German understanding,' Mr Balladur said. The remarks reflected a general French conviction that Paris has no alternative but to bolster its ties with Bonn as the driving force of European unity.

Mr Balladur did allow himself some implicit criticism of Chancellor Kohl in comments on monetary union, as foreseen by the Maastricht treaty. Mr Kohl said earlier this month that, in view of the monetary turmoil, a single currency could be delayed by a year or two. Maastricht has two dates, 1999 at the latest, with 1997 being the ideal.

'As a realist, I content myself with saying that you should not say what might happen in four or six years,' Mr Balladur said. 'Let us try and make sure that it can happen by drawing up a programme of economic convergence,' he added.

Mr Balladur stressed that the French government would not accept November's Washington compromise on agriculture within the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks. This is one of the greatest sources of contention between France and its EC partners. Concessions, Mr Balladur said, had to be shared, a clear signal to the US. France could not accept an agreement which provided for Europe 'to produce less, export less and import more'.