France Fumes Over US Roquefort Tax

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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

Roquefort cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris

You can laugh at their accents, mock their leaders, and even ban their fries from the Congressional menu without getting much of a rise from the French. But start messing with their beloved cheeses, as the U.S. has now done, and the famous Gallic shrug will rapidly give way to outraged shouts of protest.

French government officials are fighting mad following Thursday's announcement by U.S. trade authorities that Washington is tripling the tariff on Roquefort cheese imports from France. The famous blue-veined delicacy is among scores of European products targeted by a 100% levy the U.S. imposed in 1999 in retaliation for the European Union's longstanding ban on hormone-treated American beef on the grounds that it may be unsafe to eat. But unlike other goods on the list — truffles, ham, chocolate, mineral water, sausages, and certain fruits and vegetables — Roquefort is the only one whose tariffs is to be boosted from 100% to 300%. (See pictures of what the world eats.)

So why's the U.S. picking on Roquefort? Many French, including senior government officials, believe it's a parting shot from U.S. President George W. Bush, whose attitude toward France has ranged between annoyance and contempt — or at least that's the perception here. (The feeling is mutual.) "I'm shocked that among the last moves by the outgoing Bush administration is this increase in duties," fumed secretary of state for foreign trade Anne-Marie Idrac, who like most French officials believes the singling out of a famous French product is more than just a coincidence.

Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier was also outraged. "Roquefort is a traditional French product illustrating how a production process can guarantee sanitary safety while preserving a world-renowned gastronomic heritage," Barnier said in a ministry statement. "We hope friendly dialogue with the new Obama administration will help resolve this problem."

U.S. trade officials say the strategy is to "shut down trade in the targeted products," and thereby create sufficient pressure in affected sectors to unblock the deadlock over the E.U. beef ban. "Imports of Roquefort cheese have continued since 1999, notwithstanding the imposition of 100% duties," U.S. trade spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel told the AFP. "We expect that a 300% duty will have the desired effect on imports."

Perhaps. But departing Bush officials shouldn't count their poulets before they've hatched. First off, Roquefort sales to the U.S. represent just 2% — or 400 tons — of the total Roguefort market. The 1998 World Trade Organization ruling that permits Washington to retaliate over the beef ban also limits that sanction to less than $116.8 million in annual European imports to the U.S. — not exactly a sum capable of forcing trade policy capitulation. And that original decision was undermined by a WTO revision last October, which accepted previously disputed scientific evidence from the E.U. on the health risks of hormone-treated beef. (See pictures of the perfect steak.)

The Roquefort focus may also backfire because French Roquefort producers say they'll seek financial compensation from France and the E.U., rather than harangue Brussels to lift its beef ban. "The United States is hoping producers will put pressure on Europe," said France's famous anti-globalization crusader and Roquefort producer, José Bové. "But it's clear: at no time will producers put pressure on Europe to open its borders to hormone-treated beef."

Jacques Mistral, head of economic research at the French Institute of Foreign Relations in Paris says Thursday's move reflects a last-gasp provocation by the Bush administration, which has never forgotten France's emphatic non before the invasion of Iraq. Mistral — who was economic adviser at the French Embassy in Washington during the stormy period from 2001 to 2006 — says the current swipe at Roquefort will prove less economically threatening than the Iraq-triggered American public boycott of France's wines in 2003 — and shorter-lived than the deportation of French fries from Congress' menu. "Even from this administration, I was astounded by such a grotesque, petty and inefficient gesture in its last hours in office," Mistral says. "No U.S. sector benefits from this, and there's no way the E.U. will reverse its ban on hormone-raised beef that consumers here don't want. I suspect we'll see this move reversed by the new administration as both obnoxious and futile." For a nation derided by France-bashers as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", them's fighting words.

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