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Nakasone tries to bridge Japan's trade gap with Western Europe. France remains skeptical of pledges to open markets

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone promised to open the Japanese market more to imports. He pledged more Japanese investment. He even wrote a haiku praising the Bastille Day military parade. But his French hosts remained skeptical when his four-day visit ended yesterday.

For the French as well as for the United States -- and Mr. Nakasone's other hosts during his current European trip -- the problem is the same: Japanese exports.

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Last year the Japanese trade surplus with the European Community exceeded $20 billion. For France alone, the Japanese surplus for the same period was $1.7 billion, leading Edith Cresson, the French minister of industry and external trade, to complain that Japan is ``protectionist both in its habits and its regulations.''

Also like the US, Europe remains unsure how to respond to the Japanese challenge. One strong tendency is to slap sanctions on Japanese imports.

Three years ago, the French shocked the Japanese by requiring that all imported videocassette recorders be processed through the small customs stations at Poitiers in central France. That restriction has subsequently been rescinded, but the French still force the Japanese to keep their penetration of the French auto market to a mere 3 percent.

Another strong tendency, though, is to work with the Japanese. The British lead in this approach. Numerous British firms have joined with the Japanese in joint ventures such as last month's agreement between Austin Rover and Honda to produce Honda automobiles in England.

Not long ago, other European countries criticized the British for such agreements. They argued that Japanese investors were using the British welcome to gain larger footholds in European markets.

Today, high unemployment has forced them to scramble for whatever Japanese investment they can get. Britain still accounts for one-third of total Japanese investment in Europe, but figures for West Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France have been rising fast.

At a press conference, Prime Minister Nakasone emphasized this increased investment. He said that 28 Japanese companies had set up in France last year compared to only six in 1980.

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And he pointed out that Japanese companies were responsible for one-third of the 13,400 new jobs created in France through foreign investment.

In addition, Nakasone exhorted his hosts to make a greater effort to sell to Japan. He said that Japan would continue to open its market both by lowering customs tariffs and by easing standardization procedures. If the German auto company BMW could sell 10,000 cars in Japan last year, he said, Renault and Peugeot should be able to sell more than their meager total of 870 automobiles.

These tough words were mixed with flattery. As a young man, the Japanese prime minister studied in France and developed an abiding love for French culture.

During his trip, he visited the Orangerie impressionist art gallery, Claude Monet's house in Giverny, and Paul C'ezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence.

Nakasone also reviewed the traditional July 14 military parade down the Champs Elys'ees with President Franois Mitterrand.

At one point, television cameras showed him in front of a red-white-and-blue French flag, scribbling in his notebook. Later he admitted he had been writing a haiku, a traditional Japanese poem.

A Japanese official provided a rough translation of the haiku: Tricolor flies in the gale Nobody recoils Before July's lightning bolts.

Did the poetry touch his hosts?

Evidently not.

Trade Minister Cresson preferred to discuss the possible sales of French helicopters and nuclear power plants with the Japanese prime minister.

To clear the shadow of the unbalanced trade figures hanging over bilateral relations, she said, France ``expected a certain number of concrete steps.''

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