Recent moves by the French to impose new import curbs have triggered cries of protectionism and hints of legal action by its partners in the European Community.
The controversy is heating up as the EC nations are preparing to confront the United States on trade issues at the ministerial conference of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which opens in Geneva Wednesday. At a meeting in Brussels today, France joined other EC nations in agreeing to stand firm against U.S. demands, including refusing a renegotiation of agricultural subsidies.
But the dispute within the community has pitted France against the other EC nations, particularly West Germany. At issue are measures announced last month requiring all customs documents for imports into France to be written in French and all products sold in France to bear labels identifying the country of origin.
In addition, Paris directed that all imported video recorders be funneled through the tiny customs office of Poitiers in west central France, far from the main ports. That action appeared to be aimed mostly at choking off the Japanese sets that account for 95 percent of the French market. But it also threatens to create bottleneck problems for West Germany's Grundig and Holland's Philips.
With a show of insouciance, the French shrugged off accusations of protectionism. The Poitiers customs order was officially described as part of an administrative reorganization. The labeling requirement was said to be for the protection of consumers, and the linguistic requirement for customs documents was defended as necessary to protect the French language.
Claiming, too, that they weren't doing anything unique, the French commissioned internal studies on import curbs used by their European trading partners. The studies cite Britain, for instance, for having a limited number of customs posts, requiring country-of-origin labels on certain products and pushing a "Buy British" publicity campaign. West Germany and Denmark are said to impose technical qualifications and standards on imports.
"Protectionism is the new wave," observed a senior official in the French Finance Ministry.
Not appeased by such arguments, European officials say the French are trying to redress their negative trade balance through unfair means.
On Nov. 4, the community's European Commission sent Paris formal warning that France may be in violation of Article 30 of the Treaty of Rome. The commission demanded a factual justification, the first step toward initiation of a community suit at the Court of Justice.
In a separate but related action, the commission began legal proceedings against France on a two-year-old complaint involving restrictions of certain textile imports. But the court has no real enforcement power. France's injured allies must rely essentially on the moral suasion of the commission, and occasional public harangues.
"There is a lot of concern here that things could get worse," said an EC official. "Most of the talk, though, up to now has been in terms of trying to draw the French back rather than to retaliate against them."
Leading the charge against France is West Germany. At a French-German summit here last month, Bonn Economics Minister Count Otto Lambsdorff publicly attacked Paris for "trying to defend itself with measures that go hard into the area of protectionism." The German minister later clashed harshly with French Foreign Trade Minister Michel Jobert at a closed-door meeting of European economic ministers in Luxembourg.
"The French are always in favor of closing borders," said a West German official who deals with community matters. "They argue that their companies must be given time and protection to recover. We say that if there is no real competition allowed, the firms will lose their will to compete.
"This will be the framework for future discussions in the community," he went on. "There will continue to be a French menace to close the borders--to food products, steel, cars, whatever. France will try to push us across this point."
A sign that official tempers in Europe are rising against France came this week when a Dutch official fired an unusually sharp blast at the Mitterrand government. Netherlands Finance Minister Onno Ruding told his French counterpart, Jacques Delors, at a Brussels meeting that the latest protectionist moves were "completely unacceptable" and were presenting "all sorts of problems" to Dutch companies at the French border.
The new trade restrictions emerged following a publicized estimate in September that the 1982 French trade deficit would reach $14 billion. This news, on top of rising unemployment and lagging investment in France, increased pressure on the government of President Francois Mitterrand.
With municipal elections scheduled for next March, the trade measures seem calculated to show that the government is keeping its promise to preserve French markets for the French. The ruling Socialist Party has attracted charges of protectionism since it nationalized large sections of industry and banking and launched a program of "reconquering the domestic market" soon after taking office in May 1981.
One informed French official, interviewed in Paris, conceded that the new import actions were "done primarily for public opinion" rather than in anticipation of substantially helping consumers or reducing the trade deficit.
"We have to have some gadgets, just like the Americans and the Japanese have," the official said.