Kohl set to bring Paris into trade fold

JUST a fortnight away from the deadline for the Gatt agreement on liberalising world trade, President Francois Mitterrand and the French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, arrived in Bonn yesterday for talks with the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

The subject of Gatt dominates the agenda of the Franco-German summit, which concludes today. The French, worried about the effect of the Gatt agreement on the livelihoods of French farmers, have been reluctant to put their names to the Gatt deal, due to be finalised by 15 December, quoting 'European interests', and complaining of an 'American offensive'.

At a meeting last week between John Major and Mr Kohl, both leaders expressed optimism that the agreement would duly be signed, and warned of the catastrophic consequences if the deal were to fall through. Paris, too, has begun to sound more conciliatory in recent days.

Britain and other European countries look to Germany as the nation which can most successfully cajole France into the free-trade fold. When Mr Balladur was in Bonn in August, Mr Kohl's apparent words of support for the French at that time - he said that he had 'enormous problems' with the agricultural part of the Gatt agreement - caused triumphalism in Paris and dismay elsewhere.

But, in the following weeks, Mr Kohl played down any suggestion that he was prepared to stand alongside the French on the protectionist barricades. Officials emphasised that, despite all the sympathy in Bonn for the French position, Germany's heart still belongs to Gatt. The Chancellor's words of support were said to be have been intended only as a 'gesture' towards Mr Balladur - an attempt, in effect, to sweeten the poison pill of free trade. Bonn soothingly points out that France, as a major exporter, in any case stands to gain as much as it stands to lose.

Following the currency crisis in the summer, there was much talk of an impending break-up of the 'Franco-German marriage'. Defenders of the relationship argued, however, that the marital rows are an occasional, passing phenomenon, and should not be taken as a sign that the divorce lawyers are about to be called in.

Certainly, the Elysee Treaty, on close co-operation between Germany and France, at war with each other twice this century, is still a cornerstone of Bonn's foreign policy. Though Britain would sometimes like to believe differently, the continental 'special relationship' seems unlikely to fade away.

On Tuesday the Social Democrat opposition leader, Rudolf Scharping, met Mr Mitterrand and Mr Balladur in Paris. He, too, emphasised the importance of the Franco- German relationship.

Other topics during the talks in Bonn include the preparations for next week's European Union summit in Brussels, and for the Nato summit in January.