French Senate rejects EU-Canada free trade agreement


French senators have voted by a large majority against the ratification of the free trade deal between the European Union and Canada known as Ceta. In a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron, the rejection follows weeks of protests by farmers opposed to such liberal trade policies.

In a closely watched ballot on Thursday, 211 senators opposed the ratification of the free-trade deal while 44 voted in favour.

The no vote came after left and right-wing opposition parties teamed up in an unusual alliance to scupper the deal.

Free-trade deals, a symbol of the EU's will to open up markets and boost competition, have become the target of fierce criticism across the political spectrum since farmers in France and other EU countries protested against what they see as unfair competition from abroad.

French farmers, who have pressured the government to obtain more aid, have been spearheading the fight against international free-trade deals and Ceta in particular, saying it favours Canadian rivals whose environmental standards are less stringent.

Interbev, the lobby of French cattle farmers and meat processors, welcomed the vote.

"Interbev now counts on the National Assembly to definitely reject this harmful deal for the industry of cattle and meat and the consumers," it said in a statement sent after the vote.

The leftist Confederation Paysanne farmers' union described the vote as a victory, saying the agreement "accentuates the race for volumes, with no tangible return to producers".

But the federation of exporters of French wines and spirits (FEVS) expressed dismay.

The "totally surrealist" vote was a "real blow to all of the wine and spirits sector" said FEVS' delegate general.  

A 'bad signal'

Macron is an advocate of free trade policies and his centrist parliamentary allies managed to get Ceta approved by a slim margin in the National Assembly lower house in 2019, but it needed the backing of the Senate upper house for ratification.

The rejection by the Senate – where the government no longer has an absolute majority – means the bill now goes back to the National Assembly.

The trade deal, sealed in 2014, ratified in 2017 by the European Parliament is aimed at suppressing tariffs on 98 percent of goods between the EU and Canada.

While it has been in force provisionally since 2017, it requires ratification in all EU member states to take full effect. Ten countries have not yet ratified it.

French Trade Minister Franck Riester said farmers like wine and cheese producers – France's top export productions – would benefit from the deal.

"Today is a very bad day for our economy, for our business, for our exporters, for our farmers," Reister told senators after the vote.

"You are sending a very bad signal to our exporters, to our farmers and to Canada," he said.