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France's Le Maire: 'Resolving trade sanctions is my priority for Biden administration'

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French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire (pictured) said on Thursday (14 January) that resolving trade sanctions was his priority with the incoming US administration in order to keep a trade war from adding to the economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic,write Christian Lowe and Leigh Thomas.
France's Le Maire talks sanctions, Carrefour, growth

US President Donald Trump’s administration hit France with tariff duties on wine after failing to resolve a 16-year dispute over aircraft subsidies with the European Union. It also threatened to impose tariffs on French cosmetics, handbags and other imports over Paris’ digital service tax on big internet companies.

“The consequences of trade sanctions on our economy are very negative and very detrimental. We already have the pandemic crisis,” Le Maire said in an interview at the Reuters Next conference.

“We should not add any kind of difficulties to this very difficult economic situation. A trade war is not in the interests of the U.S. and not in the interest of Europe.”

Le Maire said that he had received no “initial signals” from the Biden administration about how it would deal with trade, but that he hoped to visit Washington in February.

If the Biden administration gives its support, Le Maire said stalled talks among nearly 140 countries to rewrite the rules of international taxation could be revived at the OECD and wrapped up within six months.

Trade tensions with Washington have added to the clouds hanging over the French economy in the last year, as it was already struggling with its deepest downturn since World War II.

The US government this week began collecting new duties on certain non-sparkling wines as well as cognacs and other brandies from France, adding to the pressure on the economy as it struggles with a slow start to its vaccination programme.

Despite a weak start to the year, Le Maire said that his forecast for 6% growth in 2021 remained within reach and that he was confident of a strong recovery in the second half of the year.

But he added: “We have to remain humble and cautious because we have been fooled by the virus many times.”

The minister said he was not worried about the initially slow roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine in France.

For more coverage from the Reuters Next conference please click here.

To watch Reuters Next live, visit here.

France

US and allies respond to Iranian 'provocations' with studied calm

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In the week since Washington offered to talk with Tehran about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has curbed UN monitoring, threatened to boost uranium enrichment and its suspected proxies have twice rocketed Iraqi bases with US soldiers, write Arshad Mohammed and John Irish.

In return, the United States and three allies, Britain, France and Germany, have responded with a studied calm.

The response - or lack of one - reflects a desire not to disrupt the diplomatic overture in hopes Iran will return to the table and, if not, that the pressure of US sanctions will keep taking its toll, US and European officials said.

Iran has repeatedly demanded the United States first ease the US sanctions imposed after former President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018. It would then wind down its own violations of the pact, which began a year after Trump’s withdrawal.

“However much they believe the US should lift sanctions first, that’s not going to happen,” said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

If Iran wants the United States to resume compliance with the deal “the best way and the only way is to get to the table where those things will be discussed,” the official added.

Two European diplomats said they did not expect the United States, or Britain, France and Germany - informally known as the E3 - to do more to pressure Iran for now despite what one described as “provocations.”

One of the diplomats said the current policy was to condemn but avoid doing anything that could close the diplomatic window.

“We have to tread carefully,” said the diplomat. “We have to see whether the E3 can juggle Iran’s headlong rush and the U.S. hesitance to see whether we even have a path forward.”

The “headlong rush” was a reference to Iran’s accelerating violations of the agreement.

In the last week, Iran has reduced cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, including by ending snap inspections of undeclared suspected nuclear sites.

A report by U.N. nuclear watchdog also said Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20%, above the 2015 deal’s 3.67% limit, and Iran’s supreme leader said Tehran could go to 60% if it wished, bringing it closer to the 90% purity needed for an atomic bomb.

The crux of the deal was that Iran would limit its uranium enrichment program to make it harder to amass the fissile material for a nuclear weapon - an ambition it has long denied - in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.

While the United States says it is still investigating rockets fired at Iraqi bases last week that house U.S. personnel, they are suspected of having been carried out by Iranian proxy forces in a long-standing pattern of such attacks.

In a demonstration of the restrained US stance, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that Washington was “outraged” by the attacks but would not “lash out” and would respond at a time and place of its choosing.

The second European diplomat said US leverage was still in place because President Joe Biden had not lifted sanctions.

“Iran has positive signals from the Americans. It now needs to seize this opportunity,” this diplomat said.

On Wednesday (24 February), spokesman Price told reporters the United States would not wait forever.

“Our patience is not unlimited,” Price said.

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French city of Nice asks tourists to stay away amid COVID surge

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The mayor of Nice in southern France called on Sunday (21 February) for a weekend lockdown in the area to reduce the flow of tourists as it battles a sharp spike in coronavirus infections to triple the national rate, writes Geert De Clercq.

The Nice area has France’s highest COVID-19 infection rate, with 740 new cases per week per 100,000 residents, according to Covidtracker.fr.

“We need strong measures that go beyond the nationwide 6 p.m. curfew, either tighter curfew, or a partial and time-specific lockdown. A weekend lockdown would make sense,” Mayor Christian Estrosi said on franceinfo radio.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Saturday the government would decide this weekend on tightening virus control measures in the Mediterranean city.

Before ordering a second national lockdown in November, the government imposed curfews some cities and closed restaurants in Marseille, but it has generally refrained from regional measures due to protest from local politicians and businesses.

“We do not rule out local lockdowns,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on LCI television.

He added that the trend in new cases was not good in recent days and that there was no case for loosening curfew.

“The weather is nice, everybody rushes to come here. A weekend lockdown would put a stop to that, without halting economic activity in the city,” Estrosi said.

Estrosi said infection rates had leapt due to the massive inflow of tourists over the Christmas holiday. International flights to the city had jumped from 20 a day before Christmas to 120 over the holiday - all this without people having virus tests in their country of origin or on arrival.

“We will be happy to receive lots of tourists this summer, once we win this battle, but it is better to have a period while we say ‘do not come here, this is not the moment’. Protecting the people of Nice is my priority,” he said.

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West must help vaccinate Africa's healthworkers now, says Macron

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Europe and the United States should without delay send enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa to inoculate the continent’s health-care workers or risk losing influence to Russia and China, French President Emmanuel Macron (pictured) said on Friday (19 February), writes Michel Rose.

Earlier this week, Macron urged Europe and the United States to allocate up to 5% of their current vaccine supplies to developing countries in an effort to avoid an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference after U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron said the first step should send 13 million doses to Africa - enough, he said, to inoculate all its healthworkers.

“If we announce billions today to supply doses in 6 months, 8 months, a year, our friends in Africa will, under justified pressure from their people, buy doses from the Chinese and the Russians,” Macron told the conference. “And the strength of the West will be a concept, and not a reality.”

Macron said 13 million doses amount to 0.43% of all vaccine shots ordered by Europe and America.

Group of Seven leaders earlier in the day reaffirmed their support to the most vulnerable countries.

Oxfam France urged the G7 countries to break the monopoly held by their pharmaceutical companies. That would be the “fastest, fairest and most effective way to boost vaccine production so that countries don’t have to compete for doses,” the charity said in a statement.

The World Health Organization on Thursday urged nations producing COVID-19 vaccines not to distribute them unilaterally but to donate them to the global COVAX scheme to ensure fairness.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates told the conference the politically sensitive gap between vaccinating people in wealthy and developing countries could narrow to half a year if authorities take proper action.

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