Time to Isolate France

October 23, 1992

Weak economies produce weak governments and vice versa. This vicious circle is very much on view in France's latest sabotaging of world trade talks. With President Francois Mitterrand drooping even lower than President Bush in public opinion polls and his Socialist Party facing a rout in National Assembly elections next March, the French government has pandered once again to its heavily subsidized and never-satisfied farmers.

Mr. Mitterrand and his tough-talking Cabinet officials evidently thought they could roll over an American president caught in an uphill battle for re-election. But Mr. Bush, to his credit, called his chief technical negotiator home from talks in Brussels after the French stonewalled. He had made significant concessions in agriculture -- the key sticking point in negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade -- but when it came time to sign on, the French backed off.

It is intolerable that a noisy special-interest group in just one country has the leverage to hold the whole world hostage -- that it can block a reform of international commerce that could boost global production by $100 billion to $200 billion a year. Yet France, so far, has been able to get away with this kind of obstruction. It's time for its partners in the European Community to blow the whistle. In EC policy, France does not hold an #F absolute veto. It could be outvoted and isolated if only the German government could find the will to do so.

Aye, there's the rub. Year after year, Bonn officials have given lip service but little else to a new GATT accord. Rather than offend France or its own inefficient farming sector, Germany has acquiesced to French protectionism even though this policy is highly damaging to the German economy. And, we might add, to the intimidated French manufacturing sector as well.

So what is the United States to do now that GATT talks have collapsed? Either before or just after the Nov. 3 election, President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Gov. Bill Clinton, should put down their political cudgels long enough to present a united American stance. They should declare their joint support for extension of fast-track consideration by Congress of non-amendable trade treaties beyond the present March 2 deadline. In that way, they would remove time pressures on U.S. negotiators and focus it on France and Germany, where it belongs.

As the global recession widens and deepens, the mighty industrial democracies on both sides of the Atlantic are not the only countries that would benefit materially from a new GATT treaty. Medium powers such as Argentina and Australia and Third World nations desperate for access to hard-currency markets could get a needed jump start. French farmers subsidized at great cost to French consumers and manufacturers should no longer be permitted to say "Non." If the Germans will say, "Ja" -- and say it resoundingly -- an anti-protectionist America should stand ready to do a deal.

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