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In the middle of the European campaign, risky vote in the Senate on the Ceta free trade treaty

It’s a big stone that could get into the shoes of the presidential camp.

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In the middle of the European campaign, risky vote in the Senate on the Ceta free trade treaty

It’s a big stone that could get into the shoes of the presidential camp. This Thursday, five years after its adoption in the National Assembly at the cost of divisions in the majority, the Senate examines the ratification of the Ceta free trade treaty. This controversial agreement between the European Union (EU) and Canada, applied provisionally since its adoption by the European Parliament in 2017, has not yet been ratified by the French Parliament because it has never been submitted to senators, in particular because of the Covid-19 pandemic. To the surprise of the government, the communists decided, an extremely rare occurrence, to include an executive text on the agenda of their parliamentary niche, this day reserved for initiatives from an opposition group. With a view to rejecting it.

This political blow shakes the Macron camp, while the European countryside is crossed by the farmers' movement. Which highlighted their concerns about free trade agreements. At the Luxembourg Palace dominated by the right, Thursday, the Macronists know they are threatened. They are preparing to come up against an alliance going from the left to the Republicans (LR). “You must not be naive. It’s an exploitation in the middle of the European campaign,” insisted Monday, on BFM Business, the Minister for Foreign Trade, Franck Riester.

The leader of the LR senators, Bruno Retailleau, promises a vote against: “We will oppose Ceta today, as we would have done five years ago if the text had been presented to us,” he warns. “We must send a message to the European Commission: the time for naivety is over. Our farmers are caught in a jaw that is crushing them, with unfair free trade at the borders of Europe on the one hand, and over-administration internally.” This opinion is shared on the benches of the left. “We are not hostile in principle to trade agreements, but we want a moratorium on those currently being negotiated and a reorientation of all others, including those with Canada,” summarizes socialist Didier Marie. The senator also points out the “contempt” of the executive, which did not “deign” to put this bill on the Senate agenda, after its adoption in the Assembly. “A denial of democracy”, in his eyes.

In Matignon, Gabriel Attal rehearses his government's argument. The Prime Minister distinguishes Ceta, from which French wine and cheese producers would benefit, from the Mercosur treaty with the countries of South America, which France opposes. “Any trade agreement should not be thrown away,” he recently confided to Le Figaro. “Making people believe that we could deprive ourselves of all trade agreements is lying to farmers. We will have to explain to those who export that they will be deprived of outlets.”

If a majority seems to be able to reject this text on Thursday in the Senate, the left still fears attempts at obstruction by the Macronists. Even certain senators from the centrist Union group, who could want to play for time and prevent a vote on the text, via a motion to refer it to committee. “Normally, we should be able to get to the end,” reassures a regular in the Upper House.

In the event of failure of the presidential camp, the symbolism would be strong. The government could try to find an agreement between deputies and senators, by convening a joint committee (CMP). Another possibility, the most likely, he could “let it slip”, says the socialist Didier Marie, while waiting for a perilous second reading in the Assembly, where Gabriel Attal does not have an absolute majority.

Also read: “CETA, or how to facilitate the importation of Canadian beef fed on animal meals”

An opposition group could speed up this vote by seizing the text. The threat is already raised by the boss of the communist deputies, André Chassaigne: “If Ceta is rejected in the Senate, we will include the text (on the agenda, Editor’s note). If both Chambers of the French Parliament refuse to ratify the treaty, it will cause disorder at European level!” Especially since his group’s “reserved day” is scheduled for May 30, a few days before the European elections on June 9. Enough to shake up the head of the Macron camp list, Valérie Hayer.

In practice, however, a rejection of the treaty by the Senate, then by the Assembly, could have limited consequences. The government is not obliged to notify the European institutions of Parliament's decision, which does not suspend the provisional application of the agreement. This is the method adopted by Cyprus. Without delay, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal planned to go to Ottawa on April 10 with his minister Franck Riester. A first international trip outside the European Union for the head of government. His distant predecessor, Manuel Valls, was the last to visit there, in 2016.

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