PARIS — France's trade minister hopes that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden acts soon to calm trade tensions fueled by Donald Trump, which have led to escalating trans-Atlantic tariffs hitting billions of dollars worth of wine, planes and other goods.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, French Trade Minister Franck Riester accused the U.S. under Trump of threatening global commerce by blocking the appointment of the World Trade Organization's next director, and urged Biden to break the logjam.
"I hope we are going to be able to rebuild the trans-Atlantic relationship with the Biden administration," Riester said. He said France is "optimistic" about the Biden presidency, and welcomed Biden's pledges to re-join the 2015 Paris climate accord and other multilateral organizations that Trump snubbed.
With the U.S. and European economies hammered by the pandemic, Riester said, "We are mobilized for dialogue at all levels … for de-escalation, to ensure that we are no longer in this trade tension."
Some 16 million workers on both sides of the Atlantic have jobs supported by EU-U.S. trade, and tariffs over the past four years have hit companies and people making and selling a wide range of goods.
But some trade tensions predated Trump, and may not be quick to resolve – notably a years-long conflict over subsidies to plane makers Boeing and Airbus that has led to tit-for-tat tariffs.
"On the Airbus-Boeing dispute, we would withdraw the tariffs that the World Trade Organization has just allowed us to impose from the moment the United States withdraw theirs," Riester said, suggesting it's up to the U.S. to make the first move.
The European Union on Tuesday started imposing tariffs on up to $4 billion worth of U.S. goods as part of that dispute, including duties of 15% on Boeing aircraft, and 25% on dozens of products including spirits, fish, bulldozers, video games and gym equipment. A year ago, the WTO ruled in a similar fashion in favor of the United States, allowing it to slap penalties on EU goods worth up to $7.5 billion – including Gouda cheese, single-malt whiskey and French wine.
The French minister defended France's push to tax online giants like Google and Amazon in the countries where they do business instead of allowing them to use tax havens.
"At a moment when we're in a crisis and both companies and people are facing grave difficulties, we need justice — and especially fiscal justice," Riester said.
France's "tech tax" prompted Trump to impose tariffs on French wine and other goods in retaliation – on top of other tariffs imposed earlier in his term. U.S. officials have argued that the French tax unfairly targets U.S. companies, though France says it is aimed at all big tech companies that make money online.
Riester urged the U.S. to rejoin discussions at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development aimed at securing an internationally agreed tax on digital companies, which would render France's tax moot.
"This would be a clear signal sent to Europe in the first few months of the Biden administration," he said.
Riester had another request of Biden: to approve the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria as the WTO's next director-general.
"We know that today, the United States is blocking her nomination, even though there is a large consensus among all the other states … The WTO is paralyzed. We need to give its strength back," he said.
The U.S. said last month it supported Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea for the job instead, saying she was the best qualified — and dousing hopes for the necessary consensus among WTO member states. That means the body could go weeks if not months without a new director. It's unclear who Biden's administration would support.
Trump repeatedly accused the WTO of unfair treatment of the U.S., started a trade war with China in defiance of the WTO system, and threatened to pull the United States out of the trade body altogether.