The Gatt Deal: France sees itself as gallant defender

FRANCE'S conservative government hopes to turn the Gatt deal into a national triumph today when the package is put before the National Assembly.

Abroad, France is seen as having imperilled the Gatt Uruguay Round by refusing to accept last year's Blair House compromise on agriculture, and as having brought Europe to the brink of crisis by threatening to use its veto.

If Gatt failed, Alain Duhamel, a political commentator, said this week, 'there'll be no trouble finding a scapegoat. It's us]' From the French perspective, however, with the agriculture question resolved 10 days before today's deadline, the farm issue is all but forgotten and France sees itself as the defender of Europe's cultural heritage.

Culture, in the form of France's insistence on the 'cultural exception' to shield Europe from what the film director Robert Altman described last week as 'the homogenisation' of world culture by US video products, replaced agriculture in recent weeks and days as the French obsession.

France levies an 11 per cent tax on cinema tickets, which helps to fund the French film industry. Given that the US has campaigned for a world without subsidies, French arguments that this was a fair device to protect the national culture were sure to grate. Francois Perigot, the head of the French employers' association, which feared the damaging consequences of a Gatt failure, said on Monday that France had defended itself well and, into the bargain, had helped European unity.

The acid test came when Britain fell into line in September when the Twelve agreed to seek a re-interpretation of Blair House. The relatively peaceful EU summit last weekend was seen as marking a new European understanding. But the French position on Gatt - inherited from the previous Socialist government - held dangers, and many of its backers had their reservations.

With the volatile farmers' lobby up in arms about concessions, the government of the late Pierre Beregovoy then exhorted the conservative opposition to make more.

Gatt became a campaign issue and no French politician could admit to a weakness for compromise. This meant that little progress was possible until the US agreed to reconsider agriculture in the last few weeks of talks.

During the months of immobility, differences appeared in the government camp. UDF ministers spoke of the need for an accord; their RPR colleagues - with the exception of Mr Balladur himself - had a more belligerent tone. On Monday of last week, for example, Jacques Toubon, the Gaullist Culture Minister, said the EU was going back to the negotiating table 'in an offensive frame of mind'. But Jean Puech, the centrist Agriculture Minister, referred soothingly to the progress so far.

Claude Imbert, the editor of the conservative Le Point weekly, wrote in a rare vitriolic commentary that France had presented a 'lamentable' international image as its leading lights had retreated 'into the nationalist den'.

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