Leading Article: A small shift in Paris on world trade talks

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S statement by Edouard Balladur, the French Prime Minister, about the world trade talks was in one respect depressing: no longer can France's EC partners kid themselves that the centre-right coalition will be less fierce in its defence of French farming interests now that it is in office. Seen in a more positive light, however, Mr Balladur's statement represents an attempt to reduce France's isolation on the issue, and seems to portend steps to educate the French public about the broader benefits of a successful conclusion to the Gatt round.

Before and during the election campaign, the long-running trade talks were represented as a tedious but dangerous exercise in which the European Commission in Brussels, aided and abetted by the British, had betrayed the interests of French agriculture. Much bile was directed at the so-called Blair House agreement of last November, in which the commission and the United States laid down a phased programme of cuts in subsidies for EC production and exports of oilseeds, cereals and other produce.

The French claimed that the Washington deal went beyond reductions agreed in last year's reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, and would put thousands of French farmers out of work. That line was a mainstay of the election campaign. In retrospect, it could have been played down, since the centre-right coalition would have won even without the farmers' votes.

Yesterday, and in his position paper to France's EC partners, Mr Balladur reiterated the long-standing French rejection of the hard-won Washington agreement. But he drew attention to what his colleague Gerard Longuet, the Trade and Industry Minister, called a 'profoundly new' desire to 'break with isolation and abandon a strategy of all or nothing'. All French industry, it was pointed out, stood to gain from a successful conclusion of the trade round. In a clear attempt at a charm offensive, ministers are being sent to European capitals to explain France's position.

The French are manifestly on the defensive. They know the Germans, the British and others will be very angry if the new government in Paris uses its veto to torpedo a deal. For France to show any sign now of softening on the agricultural front would weaken its hand in extracting compensation from EC funds for lost jobs. Yet France's intransigence also emphasises how the Americans have tended to win the diplomatic or public relations battle.

The Europeans in general and the French in particular have been painted as the wreckers of the talks. Yet the US, too, has been mulish, not least in its refusal to suspend Section 301 of its 1988 trade legislation. This enables the administration to flout the spirit if not the letter of Gatt by acting unilaterally against what it deems to be unfair trade practices. The appalling behaviour of French farmers has made it harder to sympathise with the French case. But if the EC wants to play its part in achieving a Gatt agreement, it can do so only with French support. The time has perhaps come to help the French to extract themselves from their corner.

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