French Socialists Face Furious Farmers Over Trade Issue
AN angry and perplexed France found itself isolated over the weekend in its opposition to the agreement on agricultural subsidies, uncertain whether it should support its farmers in their hour of need or choose European solidarity at the risk of sparking civil disorder and provoking the fall of the government.
While the accord between the European Community and the United States Friday was welcomed with relief in most world capitals, it cast the French in the role of the spoiler, a recalcitrant nation more concerned with its parochial needs than with the well-being of the world economy.
For President Francois Mitterrand, the agreement reached in Washington poses one of the most difficult decisions he has faced in a political career that spans four decades. The crisis over agricultural subsidies in the context of negotiations over a new world trade pact could not have come at a worse time for him and his ruling Socialist Party.
Highly unpopular after almost 12 years in power, the Socialists face certain defeat in key legislative elections next March, and signing the agreement at the expense of the country's powerful farm lobby could turn a predictable loss into a debacle.
Turning away from the farmers, who wield tremendous political clout although they account for only 1.3 million persons in a country with a population of 55 million, could also lead to the fall of the government. It was not surprising, therefore, that French politicians of all stripes quickly rejected the accord.
"It is a matter of defending the interests of France, of our agriculture, our economy, our rural life," Prime Minister Pierre Bgovoy remarked Saturday.
Socialist officials emphasized that it must still be approved by the heads of state of the 12-member European Community. But France's isolation became clear when even those countries that had shown the most empathy toward Paris - Germany, Italy, and Spain - praised the outcome of the negotiations.
While welcoming US concessions over the output of oilseeds, the prime minister said no progress had been made on the key issue of reducing European agricultural exports by 21 percent.
But he and other officials refrained from threatening a veto, called for by former prime minister and presidential hopeful Jacques Chirac which France could exercise under a rarely used European Community rule that allows such a step when a country considers its "vital interests" at stake.
While vetoing the deal would prove politically expedient and give the battered Socialists a much needed boost, the consequences of such a move would be nothing short of catastrophic from a European and international viewpoint. As a result, most commentators believe France will not go that far.
Relations between Paris and Washington have been seriously strained by the crisis, with French farmers venting their anger last week by burning an American flag in front of the US embassy in Paris and vandalizing a nearby McDonald's restaurant.
For Mr. Mitterrand, who has made European unity the hallmark of his second seven-year term, a veto would mean accepting responsibility for ending all hopes of ratifying the Maastricht Treaty on European integration.
Blocking the compromise worked out in Washington would also anger the Germans, France's key partners in constructing a united Europe. After recently supporting the battered French franc in September to show its commitment to European solidarity, Bonn can now rightly call on Paris to line up behind the accord and allow progress toward an overall trade agreement that would lift the world economy out of the doldrums.
Given its slight room for maneuver, Paris is likely to strongly support its farmers in public while at the same time try to delay a final decision in an effort to gain time and quietly find a solution that will keep Gallic pride intact.