French officials are using a trade row with China over textile imports to argue that France needs a stronger European Union, part of a campaign to drum up support for the EU constitution ahead of next month's national referendum on the charter.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in a newspaper column, wrote that France needs the EU to help address concerns that cheap textiles and clothing from China were flooding the EU market.
"The Chinese remind us maliciously that if there are exports, it's because we have importers," wrote Raffarin in the Le Monde daily. He recently returned from a trip to China.
"Let's look reality in the face: the more that Europe is strong, the more it will have a credible dialogue with China," he said.
The center-right government is pulling out the stops in its effort to build support for the constitution. Repeated polls have shown a narrow majority of French voters plan to reject the charter in the national referendum on May 29.
Earlier Wednesday, Economy Minister Thierry Breton said that adopting the charter could have helped speed up EU-China talks over textiles.
"If today we had had the European constitution, we would have had a president elected for 2 1/2 years (and) we could have gone to see the Chinese a month or two earlier," he told France-Info radio.
On Monday, EU trade ministers endorsed a full probe of allegations that cheap textiles and clothing from China were flooding the EU market, but disagreed on quick action to block the imports. France took a lead in calling for "emergency measures."
Breton said he believes "good sense will prevail" in negotiations between the EU and China over the textile trade. He said France has appealed to the World Trade Organization to permit protection measures for 10 Chinese products that France deems unfairly cheap - and could be a case of "dumping."
Breton said France had expected a sharp increase in Chinese textiles under the lifting of trade quotas on Jan. 1, and insisted that French companies had been "extremely well prepared" for the new competition.
On the photo: France's Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin