Ottawa — Canada and France were ``inches away'' from breaking diplomatic relations over some tons of cod. But during a trip last month to Western Europe, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney agreed with French Prime Minister Michel Rocard to resume negotiations Tuesday over fishing rights off Newfoundland and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
The fishing fuss reached a low point during the French presidential campaign this spring under the former conservative government.
``We were just inches away from breaking diplomatic relations with Canada, in the name of a chauvinist national policy and table-thumping that passed for negotiation,'' Mr. Rocard said in a campaign speech.
Paul Frazer, Canadian External Affairs spokesman, says Canadian-French relations have shown a ``tremendous improvement'' in the last few years. But he admits the fishing dispute, tied in with overlapping economic claims on offshore waters, remains ``interesting and challenging.''
The quarrel worsened in mid-April when Canadian fisheries officials seized a St. Pierre trawler and charged its occupants with illegal fishing in Canadian waters off Newfoundland. France recalled its ambassador from Ottawa for a few days. Then on May 5, a French frigate arrested a Newfoundland boat, the Maritimer, for fishing within the French island's 12-mile territorial limit.
On May 24, a judge in St. Pierre found the captain of the Maritimer guilty, but said the captain would be released without penalty, because he clearly did not know he needed a license to fish within French waters.
Canada has some indirect leverage in the renewed negotiations. It is presently considering whether to spend $8 billion on 10 to 12 British or French submarines.
Bruce Phillips, director of communications for Mr. Mulroney, noted that ``linkages'' are not to be considered in diplomatic circles. But, he continued, ``I don't think the Canadian public would be all that thrilled to buy French submarines if the French are sticking their fingers in our eye in a fishing dispute.''