Having made a mess of things during his auto-salesman's trip to Japan, President Bush is trying to rescue his faltering re-election campaign by bashing France and the European Community that seems to do its bidding. This is excellent targeting. While Japan is insular and xenophobic by reason of its island geography and its homogenous population, France's brand of protectionism is relatively gratuitous, a triumph of political timidity over principle.
If France has its way, the international trade system the world has known and hopes to improve will go by the wayside. Given the choice of placating its vociferous, highly subsidized farmers or reforming world trade, the government of Francois Mitterrand will play it craven every time.
The pity of it is that French obstructionism gives Japan and all too many other countries a chance to hide behind its barricades (or, should we say its petticoats?). The result is continuing stalemate in Geneva negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which has missed deadline after deadline while world commerce suffers.
The latest failure came over the weekend when the EC, at Paris' bidding, snubbed the efforts of GATT Director General Arthur Dunkel to break the logjam by offering his own 450-page compromise package. French Agriculture Minister Louis Mermaz said the Dunkel proposals would be "the ruin of European agriculture" -- meaning the system of mountainous subsidies that produce mountainous surpluses that effectively block out the products of efficient farmers elsewhere.
This being the case, Mr. Bush was on the button yesterday when he proclaimed that "the EC must stop hiding behind its own Iron Curtain of protectionism." But he gave his political game away when he added that he would leave U.S. farm subsidies in place until he gets a new GATT accord. The trouble with this strategy is that it hurts the Europeans not at all while it wounds such natural U.S. allies as wheat-exporting Australia and Third World nations eager to export tropical products.
"We won the Cold War and we will win the competitive wars," the president vowed. But will we? The consensus in the business community was that the concessions he arm-wrestled from the Japanese will not alter the chronic American trade deficit to any meaningful degree. Instead, there is well-grounded fear that the spectacle of Mr. Bush going to Japan with ingrate auto executives who mocked his efforts was just another show of American weakness and incoherence. Democrats have leaped at the chance to embarrass the president.
We are pleased Mr. Bush came home and changed the focus to where it belongs -- on French obstructionism. This must be the subject of continuing presidential attack until the next GATT negotiating deadline in the spring. For if a satisfactory accord is not attained by then, what little chance that an increasingly protectionist Congress will ratify a new GATT treaty will be just about nil.