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France leads doubters on EU-US free trade deal

Britain is pushing for reaching a fast and ambitious free trade deal with the United States, but France has successfully marshalled European anxieties to try to limit the EU negotiating mandate for what would be the world's largest free trade deal.

"I was alone at the beginning. At the end, I had a large majority in the European Parliament which approved what we wanted," French foreign trade minister Nicole Bricq said following a vote by lawmakers on Thursday.

As sought by France and 13 other nations EU lawmakers gave their approval Thursday for the European Commission to begin negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, but voted for cultural and audiovisual services to be excluded from upcoming talks.

The vote by Parliament was non-binding, but EU lawmakers could block any eventual deal, putting the Commission in a tough spot.


Lawmakers also called for protecting Europe's restrictions on the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture from the talks.

The European Union and the United States announced in February they would try to conclude a FTA as a way of spurring lacklustre growth and creating jobs as global trade talks remain deadlocked.

"I believe we have a good opportunity to cut tariffs, open markets, create jobs and make all of our economies even more competitive," said US President Barack Obama earlier this month during a visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The British leader said he hoped the groundwork for formal talks could be ready by the June 17-18 meeting of G8 leaders, which he is hosting in Northern Ireland.

"To realise the huge benefits this deal could bring would take ambition and political will. That means everything on the table, even the difficult issues and no exceptions," said Cameron, adding that the weeks leading up the summit will be "crucial".

Following the Parliament vote, British sources said London favoured putting everything on the table at the start of the talks so as not "to give the other side the option" of also announcing exclusions.

But Bricq, one of the most strong-minded ministers in the socialist government of President Francois Hollande, disagrees.

"There are many great things in this project but that doesn't mean I would walk into those talks with my hands tied," she said.

She faulted the Commission for seeking to have a negotiating mandate without any conditions.

To think that in return Washington will agree to open its markets "smacks of huge naivety," said Bricq.

The minister said France had objectives to secure in the food and textile sectors among others.

"I also intend to use these talks to prise open the US public procurement market, which is much more closed than ours," said Bricq.

"When you go into talks with such a formidable partner you don't go in from a position of weakness," she said from her office overlooking the Seine.

However the EU starts from an unenviable economic position. The eurozone is in recession while the US is growing by more than 2 percent.

Bricq acknowledged that "Europe may be a little tired, but it is still 500 million consumers," which gives it weight in the talks.

Specialists also pointed to the asymmetrical positions of the United States, a superpower, and the EU, a weak political entity often riven by the divergent interests of its 27 members.

"The Americans have policies on strategic sectors, which is not the case for Europe, except in agriculture and a few rare areas," said Philippe Hugon, professor emeritus at the University of Paris X-Nanterre.

While Bricq has led the push to have several subjects removed from the upcoming trade talks, some in the ruling French socialists are hostile to a deal.

"The problem isn't securing exemption on the cultural exception but to ask strategically whether we need this agreement," said another minister who asked not to be named.

The minister's answer: we don't.