By SYLVIE CORBETAssociated Press
PARIS (AP) - The French government said Wednesday it wants the start of major trade negotiations between the United States and the European Union suspended for two weeks amid anger over alleged U.S. eavesdropping on its European allies.
The country, whose Socialist government has never seemed hugely enthusiastic about the free trade deal, will try to get other EU members to agree to the request - but its chances looked slim. The European Commission, which negotiates for the 28 member states, and Germany showed no signs of agreeing to postpone the start of talks planned for the beginning of next week, which come after months of protracted and painful efforts to find a common European stance.
France was at the heart of those difficulties, insisting on protections for its film and other cultural subsidies.
Just Tuesday night, the Commission said the planned start of technical negotiations in Washington "should not be affected" by the surveillance scandal that has emerged in recent days. But France is again raising its voice in protest.
"It seems wise to us to suspend (the talks) temporarily, for a period of 15 days," French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told reporters Wednesday.
After reports that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged EU diplomatic offices in Washington and infiltrated its computer network, Vallaud-Belkacem said mutual trust is needed before launching talks on such a huge trade deal. The deal is expected to boost economies on both sides of the Atlantic by removing tariffs and other barriers to trade.
She said France will first "discuss with our European partners to take a joint decision."
Her boss, President Francois Hollande, had hinted at a threat to trade talks in unusually outraged comments Monday demanding that the United States immediately stop any such eavesdropping.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius acknowledged to parliament Wednesday that the free trade deal is "very important for the United States and very important for Europe." But, he added that the two sides needed negotiations "in a climate of trust."
"How can we have this genuine climate of trust when we don't even know if the delegations will be spied upon or not? So I think we need to calm things down, ask our American friends as we have done for precise answers, take a bit of time and afterward, Europe and France will make its decision," Fabius said.
Hollande and his government are trying to appear tough internationally since his leadership is under pressure at home, not only from the opposition conservatives but increasingly from the far-left wing of his Socialist party. Hollande may be hoping that it's good for him and his popularity to show that he can be strong against the free-market United States.
In Berlin, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert suggested Germany is sticking to the plan for talks, despite anger over the snooping allegations. Speaking to reporters earlier Wednesday, he said that "we support the Commission in its effort to begin the negotiations on July 8."
But Volker Treier, a senior official at the influential German trade association DIHK, told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel that he was concerned about the atmosphere.
"For a free trade agreement there needs to be transparency and trust between the potential partners. The talks will get harder, the greater the distrust is," he told the newspaper in comments reported Wednesday. "If the United States knew in advance what our negotiating strategy was then we Europeans would be fleeced."
Germany's top security official said bluntly that if his countrymen were worried about U.S. intelligence agencies snooping on their Internet traffic - as claimed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden - then they should stop using American websites such as Google and Facebook.
"Whoever fears their communication is being intercepted in any way should use services that don't go through American servers," Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said.
The European Commission, while planning to go ahead with the talks on time, has said the trans-Atlantic atmosphere needed to clear up for them to be successful.
"For such a comprehensive and ambitious negotiation to succeed, there needs to be confidence, transparency and clarity among the negotiating partners," it said in Tuesday's statement.
It's unlikely that France could block the talks on its own. Last month, the European Commission was given the mandate from all members to start the talks after striking a deal with France about keeping the movie and television business out of the negotiations to shield Europe's audiovisual industry from Hollywood.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said hinging the start of talks on such political issues as the eavesdropping scandal would amount to the EU shooting itself in the foot. The EU, he said, was entering talks out of self-interest, not to be subservient to the United States.
A free trade pact would create a market with common standards and regulations across countries that together account for nearly half the global economy. A recent EU-commissioned study showed that a trade pact could boost the EU's output by 119 billion euro ($159 billion) a year and the U.S. economy by 95 billion euros ($127 billion). For Europe in particular, that extra growth could be crucial to help pay high public debt and bring down unemployment, which is at record highs.
Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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