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Liberty, equality, obstinacy

November 07, 2005

OBSESSED WITH ITS PAST AND its waning cultural influence, France often seems not so much a major power as a parody of a major power. Yet this charming Gallic obstinacy can have serious consequences. A four-year effort to make the global trading system more fair to poor nations is now endangered by the stubborn unilateralism of one man: French President Jacques Chirac.

Millions of poor farmers around the world desperate to reach global markets need the French government to overcome its small-mindedness and accept radical changes to Europe's trade-distorting farm subsidy program.

There isn't much time to reach a deal. The so-called Doha round of negotiations, begun in 2001, is supposed to conclude in Hong Kong next month, but the parties are far apart. And there are plenty of parties at the table: major agricultural exporters such as Brazil and Australia demanding greater market access; poor nations such as West Africa's cotton-producing countries, which are victimized by Washington's handouts to California cotton growers; and the United States and the European Union.

The Bush administration has proposed cutting some tariffs and subsidy programs that give U.S. exports an unfair competitive advantage. Whether Congress would go along with the proposals remains an open question, but it will be an academic question as long as the European Union refuses to come close to the U.S. position.

The U.S. stand is barely acceptable to the rest of the world as it is; most nations view U.S. farm policy as a hypocritical departure from the free-trade gospel that Washington preaches when convenient. The Europeans, represented by Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson of Britain, have made a timid counterproposal that does not cut tariffs enough and would exempt too many "sensitive products."

The interesting back story to the current impasse is the mounting intra-European squabbling. The European Union negotiates trade deals as a unit, but France, one of 25 member nations, is insisting that Mandelson's proposals go too far.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other European leaders are becoming more vocal about their displeasure with a European Union farm policy that eats up nearly half the union's budget and undermines Europe's broader interest in liberalizing trade.

Unless Chirac, a former agriculture minister, relents and accepts that changes to farm support programs are necessary, France will not only be seen as a villain in the developing world, it will be increasingly isolated within Europe as well.

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