UK/France: French not without fears.

UK/France: French not without fears. - Britain's policy of welcoming the Japanese is certain to be a sore point with France's Prime Minister. By Peter Wilsher.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Britain's policy of welcoming the Japanese is certain to be a sore point with France's Prime Minister. By Peter Wilsher.

Like ground elder, economic nationalism is a very hard weed to kill. However irrefutable may be the economic case for free trade and open markets, there is never a shortage of voices demanding more protection for "our" jobs and special treatment for "our" way of life. Ever since the European Community launched its single market project in the mid-1980s it has been necessary to expend thousands of hours of diplomatic time reassuring sceptics in Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere that 1992 was not just a codeword for Fortress Europe. But recent political developments, particularly in Britain and France, seem, to put it mildly, more calculated to reinforce than dispel such dark suspicions.

Our own Trade and Industry Secretary, Peter Lilley, started the ball rolling with a series of bizarre-looking references to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The rationale in each of the five cases concerned was ostensibly ideological: that any acquisition proposed by a foreign company that happened to be also state-controlled must always be especially closely scrutinised in case it should represent "nationalisation by the back door".

The argument would be debatable at the best of times but when it transpired that no fewer than four out of the five bidders were French - one from the chemical sector, two from banking, and the fourth, Elf Aquitaine, seeking to buy Amoco's UK petrol outlets - is is hardly surprising that Paris should start talking about "discrimination". Indeed, Credit Lyonnaise, which found itself referred twice, has lodged a formal complaint with the Commission in Brussels.

On its own, that could have been dismissed as a minor spat. But the departure of Michel Rocard, France's cool, consensus-minded Prime Minister, and his replacement by the blisteringly patriotic Edith Cresson, virtually guarantees a continuation of hostilities.

The flame-haired temptress, as she is not always lovingly remembered in Brussels, has never made any secret of her priorities. As a minister, first for agriculture, then trade and industry and finally European affairs, her undeviating policy could be summed up as "France first, rest nowhere". When she walked out of the Mitterrand Government last year it was in the middle of a blazing row in which she accused Rocard of "rolling out the carpet for the Japanese" when he should have been conducting "economic warfare".

There are those who claim to believe (usually with a rather nervous look over their shoulder) that her bark may be worse than her bite. They cite the famous occasion in March 1990, six months before she resigned, when she practised one of Mrs Thatcher's favourite strategies: signing a controversial document in private (in this case one easing restrictions on Japanese imports) and then memorably denouncing it ("Their long-term aim is to kill European industry") at the ensuing press conference.

They may be right, of course, especially if President Mitterrand, who has the constitutional right to hire and fire Prime Ministers as he thinks fit, is willing to keep her on a tight rein. But the logic of her appointment does not hold out much promise. France is entering into a three-year period dotted with important elections, and the Socialists will have a job holding on to their votes. It is a situation where a bit of chauvinistic flag-waving rarely comes amiss, and Sister Edith has always been a dab hand with the banners.

In her resignation letter last year she set out her credo: "The political power of France is being weakened because of insufficient industrial mobilisation. There's a world economic war going on and France is not leading it." The expectation is that her appointment will mean a much tougher and more Gaullist line on issues as diverse as the stalled GATT trade negotiations, the European stance on high-definition television and the narrowing of what she has called "the growing economic gap with Germany".

Given her particular interest in matters Japanese, however, the most likely target for an early outburst must clearly be Britain. Our long-established policy of welcoming the Mitsubishis, Matsushitas and Sonys of this world as the surest way to boost exports and revitalise rundown regions can only too easily be presented as non-communitaire treachery when seen from, say, Lille.

Before her arrival, the prospects for a compromise on such vexed topics as Japanese import quotas, and the classification of locally manufactured models therein, appeared to be steadily improving. But whatever bits of paper she may or may not have been induced to sign in the past, Mme Cresson's natural belief is that Britain, in automobile manufacturing terms, has become just a colonial extension of Honshu. Perhaps it will turn out just as well that we installed those invasion-proof hydraulic doors in our part of the Channel tunnel.

(Peter Wilsher is assistant editor, Sunday Express.)

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