France rejects pact on farm trade Door is left open for compromise

November 22, 1992|By New York Times News Service

PARIS -- The French prime minister rejected a farm trad agreement yesterday, calling the accord struck by the European Community and the United States "unacceptable" and warning that it posed a "grave threat" to French farmers.

But France also left the door open to compromise on the accord, which was concluded on Friday. In a statement, Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy pointedly did not threaten to veto the agreement when it is debated by EC members, and he noted that "difficult negotiations" lay ahead.

The compromise on farm subsidies, unless it is vetoed by France, is expected to unlock long-stalled global trade talks that seek to reduce trade barriers in a broad range of goods and services, including banking and telecommunications. Those negotiations are under the Geneva-based General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and involve 108 nations.

Mr. Beregovoy's carefully worded statement was a stark illustration of France's dilemma. The country is caught between provoking an angry and potentially violent backlash from its 1 million farmers and standing in the way of an agreement thought essential to priming Western Europe for economic recovery.

European Community officials have expressed relief that France so far has not threatened to exercise its right of veto in the name of "national interest" under a rarely used community accord dating to 1966. On the other hand, if France were to do so, the move would provoke a far deeper crisis in its relations with Germany and other key community states.

The farm trade settlement was announced Friday in Brussels, Belgium, and in Washington. It was welcomed in every European capital except Paris as the key to the stalled negotiations by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT.

Describing the farm trade pact as "unacceptable" yesterday, Mr. Beregovoy confirmed the position announced Friday evening by the country's agriculture minister. Looking ahead to a debate Wednesday in the French Parliament, he also called for "national cohesion" regarding the dispute.

"We are dealing with the defense of France's interests, our agriculture, our economy, our rural way of life," he said, adding that "the result of this negotiation will affect us for a long time."

But the prime minister also stressed that while the community's executive commission was authorized to negotiate on trade matters, the 12 EC governments would have the last word. And he hinted at the sort of concessions that might make the agreement acceptable to France.

At the heart of the French position is its view that the country cannot further cut farm subsidies, price supports and cultivated acreage after France accepted one round of concessions in May, when the community's so-called Common Agricultural Policy was overhauled.

"We agreed to the reform of the common agricultural policy," Mr. Beregovoy said. "That reform is the limit of what we accept."

Put differently, France thinks that any farm trade agreement with the United States must conform with the community's new policy.

"We have good sense on our side," Mr. Beregovoy said yesterday. "Europe cannot reform its common agricultural policy May only to dismantle it in November."

Yet, he said, Friday's agreement requiring the community to cut back the volume of its agricultural exports by 21 percent "is not compatible with" the Common Agricultural Policy. France has asked the community's executive commission to prepare a report comparing the farm trade pact with the agricultural policy.

The commission's president, Jacques Delors, said yesterday that he expected "a battle of figures" when the 17-member commission meets on Wednesday to study the details of Friday's agreement.

To press its European partners, the French government may try to use planned demonstrations by farmers in the coming days. Even that tactic, though, is rife with peril because, at least in the past, the farmers have focused their anger on the government, and their protests have sometimes led to violence.

In his statement yesterday, Mr. Beregovoy urged the farmers to avoid "violence and inconsiderate behavior, which can only damage the cause of agriculture."

Many farmers' groups, though, have already accused the government of betraying their interests.

Overnight, farmers burned tires and haystacks in front of government buildings in at least three towns in the northern half of France. Most, however, seemed to be waiting for a coordinated protest scheduled for Wednesday near Parliament.

With crucial parliamentary elections due next March, opposition parties are also rushing to exploit the government's embarrassment, with the Gaullist leader, former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, even calling on President Francois Mitterrand to use France's veto to block the farm deal.

But other voices are being more cautious. In a front-page editorial yesterday, Le Monde said that France's isolation on the whole trade issue would -- "to the great delight of the British" -- undermine the Maastricht treaty on European Union as well as French cooperation with Germany.

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