Protectionist South Predicts Gattastrophe, Especially in France


IN this European capital, a taxi driver sneers at a building where negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) accord have kept lights burning late into the night.

``Two months ago, no one knew what this GATT was, and now that's all people talk about,'' the driver says. ``I can't say I understand it, but for me it means giving in to the Americans.''

In France, GATT has become synonymous with disaster. Anti-GATT protesters here often carry placards warning of a ``Gattastrophe'' if trade liberalization talks succeed.

Now the task of selling the trade-liberalizing package to the European public has begun. It should not be too difficult in what one senior British official calls ``Europe's more liberal [free market] north,'' - Britain, The Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark.

But selling GATT will be trickier across Europe's southern half, where protectionist tendencies are stronger.

In Greece, an accord could challenge the lucrative maritime shipping industry, while the Portuguese fear the repercussions on their aging textile industry. Skepticism is high in Spain as well, where vestiges of former dictator Francisco Franco's nationalist protectionism remain.

In France, leaders who now beat the drum for an accord will face a public rendered antagonistic by an atmosphere that GATT Director General Peter Sutherland likened to ``hysteria.'' French President Francois Mitterrand has warned against ceding to an ``American diktat,'' while Prime Minister Edouard Balladur called GATT talks a ``trap,'' leading France into either international isolation or domestic crisis.

To sell an agreement, these leaders will likely say that approval is now acceptable since the United States had to back down. Earlier this week, after intensive negotiations between the US and the European Union, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe proclaimed that ``Blair House is dead.''

That may mean little to Americans, but even average Frenchmen know of - and despise - the EC-US farm trade agreement negotiated in November 1992. The US agreed this week to modify the treaty - more to the detriment of unsubsidized farmers in Canada or Australia than to American farmers. But as one European official says, ``Blair House remains pretty much intact, but what's important is that Juppe be able to say the monster is dead.''

European leaders anxious to win the public's support can also cite Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development studies showing that Europe's economy stands to gain most from an accord.

Economists estimate that more than $200 billion a year would be pumped into the world economy as a result of the agreement, and that more than one-third of that new money will surface in Europe.

French leaders, who have championed the country's cereal farmers, can emphasize that a GATT agreement would include for the first time the more job-rich service sector. France, as the world's second-largest exporter of services, should reap substantial benefits. And that should be especially convincing at a time when unemployment - already 12 percent in France - is rising twice as fast among managers, engineers, and other white-collar workers, than among the general population.

Still, the resistance to trade liberalization has large numbers of devotees who will not be easily won over.

``Reduce the barriers, and out go the jobs and down go the living standards,'' says British writer Colin Hines, author of ``The New Protectionism.'' ``The new protectionism is about allowing economies to build up and grow.''

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