US vs. France--Cheese war

Washington Post:

This seems an unlikely spot to fight a trade war.

A village of 600 souls in a remote part of southern France, Roquefort clings precariously to the side of Combalou Rock, a promontory overlooking a deep valley where sheep graze in the shadow of limestone cliffs that were sheared off by a seismic jolt in prehistoric times.

But the primal shake also carved out aerated underground crevasses that give a unique economic value to this jagged landscape about 65 miles northwest of Montpellier. They make possible a gastronomical wonder that has delighted gourmets for centuries: Roquefort cheese. And now, in an era of globalized competition for trade, the smelly delicacy and its little home town have become ground zero for the warriors of export-import in Washington.

The United States, it turns out, has declared war on Roquefort cheese.

In its final days, the Bush administration imposed a 300 percent duty on Roquefort, in effect closing off the U.S. market. Americans, it declared, will no longer get to taste the creamy concoction that, in its authentic, most glorious form, comes with an odor of wet sheep and veins of blue mold that go perfectly with rye bread and coarse red wine.

The measure, announced Jan. 13 by U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab as she headed out the door, was designed as retaliation for a European Union ban on imports of U.S. beef containing hormones. Tit for tat, and all perfectly legal under World Trade Organization rules, U.S. officials explained.

Besides, they said, Roquefort is only one of dozens of European luxury products that were attacked with high tariffs. The list includes, among other things, French truffles, Irish oatmeal, Italian sparkling water and "fatty livers of ducks and geese," which apparently is how Washington trade bureaucrats say foie gras.


In that spirit, Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier recently called the tariff rate "unjustified" but said he hoped to open a new dialogue with the United States. A delegation of local elected officials went to the U.S. Embassy in Paris last week to present their case politely.

Underlying the hopes for improvement is an impression widely shared by people in France that President Obama's administration, free of baggage from the dispute over Iraq, will prove more sympathetic to France -- and in this case to the traditional cheesemakers of Roquefort. But Glandières noted that Obama has a lot to deal with. "I don't think Roquefort will be the first thing on his mind," he said.


If Obama thinks about this at all, he should recall that beef producers in the US have more votes that Roquefort producers in France. The French objection to US beef is totally protectionist and uses a flimsy excuse of nutrition supplements given the cows. Roquefort can be an interesting addition to a salad or as a topping on pizza, but it is one that most of us can live without.

The French need to open their markets to US goods for the sake of their cheese makers.


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