The Glory That Was France

December 09, 1993

"France could not be France without greatness," said Charles de Gaulle. And in pursuit of "greatness," France is relishing its role as potential deal-breaker in feverish negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Having squeezed the Americans to make concessions on agriculture that the European Commission trade negotiator, Sir Leon Brittan, said he would not have anticipated, it is now testing U.S. nerves on film and TV exports and making new demands on its EC partners. Before the Dec. 15 deadline, GATT could succeed or fail on any number of issues -- Japanese rice imports for example -- but the chief obstacle is France.

Alone among the major players in the talks on global trade liberalization, the French government has deliberately whipped up public sentiment against GATT. It has engaged in vitriolic rhetoric against the hated Anglo-Saxons. It has used the violent demonstrations of its protection-addicted farmers to undercut the Blair House accord worked out a year ago between the U.S. and the EC. It has turned its trade intransigence into a last stand for the glory of French culture. It has, in short, exploited its weakness with textbook skill.

For a country that once dominated Europe, that provided the language of diplomacy, that set the standards of taste, elegance and grandeur, life in the Twentieth Century has been burdensome. France twice required help from the U.S. to overcome German militarism. It saw its world empire dissolve. It suffered the triumph of English over French as the global lingua franca. It became a partner in a European Community where Germany was paymaster. And always, always, there was the intrusive American presence.

So when world trade talks gave it near-veto power, temptation lurked. France feared that the loss of EC-financed protectionism would destroy its farmers and, with them, the charm of the French countryside. It felt the need to resist the flood tide of American pop culture despised by its intellectuals. And it wanted to remind its people and the world over that France still needs to be reckoned with.

Despite all the angry things that have happened, we remain confident that cold hard economic calculation will prevail over nationalistic emotion -- that GATT negotiations will succeed. After signing the North American Free Trade Agreement bTC yesterday, President Clinton declared: "I say to everyone, even our own negotiators, 'don't rest, don't sleep, close the deal.' " That comes from a leader with global responsibilities. France should not take it as a signal to keep squeezing until it's too late.

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