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So much for egalite

AT THE TIME OF THE INVASION of Iraq, the idea of boycotting French products -- freedom fries, anyone? -- was all the rage among American conservatives. Well, maybe liberals around the world should soon issue their own call to boycott French products. That’s because France, inexcusably, is blocking a global trade deal that would benefit the world’s poor.

Expectations are low going into this week’s World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong, the latest milestone in the so-called Doha round of negotiations launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in late 2001. Trade talks are notoriously cumbersome, but this round was meant to make the global trading system more equitable to the developing world.

That meant, first and foremost, liberalizing global agricultural trade so that poor nations’ farm products could have better access to world markets. Rich nations have been selective free traders -- insisting on free trade for industrial goods and services but balking at free trade when it comes to agriculture, where they might find themselves at a disadvantage. The Doha round also entails liberalizing trade in services, but agriculture has been the sticking point from the start.

The United States has plenty of trade-distorting farm subsidies and import quotas, but the European Union is the real villain here, thwarting any progress. While the Bush administration has made proposals that would dramatically overhaul Washington’s support to American farmers, the European Union’s trade negotiators made it clear before the Hong Kong meeting that they would not go beyond current proposals, which the rest of the world find laughably insufficient.

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France’s government considers even the current weak-kneed EU position too aggressive and is defiantly threatening to renege on any deal. Britain, the Netherlands and many other EU members have been struggling to roll back the unsustainable Common Agricultural Policy, which eats up nearly half the EU’s budget, hurts the developing world and disproportionately benefits French farmers. But French President Jacques Chirac, a former agriculture minister, obstinately insists that he and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cut a deal in 2002 to freeze farm support in real terms until 2013. Never mind all those people around the world struggling to get by on $1 a day.

France plays a pivotal role in EU trade policy. It likes to think of itself as a champion of the developing world, but its posture in these trade talks belies that claim and is a moral stain on the nation.

France’s business leaders understand that a broader trade deal is in the nation’s interest. That concept eludes most of the nation’s people, though. Surveys show a deep distrust of free trade, and that’s reflected in Chirac’s position. Agriculture accounts for only 3% of the French economy, but it looms far larger in the Gallic psyche. French national pride is by nature defensive and nostalgic, and regional foods and gastronomic self-sufficiency are central to French cultural identity.

There is some hope that a younger generation and business leaders will press Paris for a more enlightened trade policy. Alas, it won’t happen this week.

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Development fries, anyone?


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