Protestors against the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

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EU-Canada free trade agreement in peril after French Senate rejection


The EU’s free-trade agreement with Canada has been overwhelmingly rejected in France’s Senate, which voted it down by 211 votes to 44.

President Macron’s government will now need to hold a fresh vote on the trade deal in France’s lower house. It will put this off until after June’s European Union elections, international trade minister Franck Riester said March 26.

Communist Party deputies wanted to schedule the free trade agreement for debate in the National Assembly for May 30, ten days before EU elections.

Macron’s government, though, will use its parliamentary powers to delay this. It wants to block its opponents from using the trade agreement with Canada “to carry out a political manoeuvre in the middle of the European campaign,” Riester posted on Twitter/X. 

The trade issue had become “instrumentalised in the middle of the European election campaign”, Riester complained.

The EU-Canada free trade deal has triggered an unusual alliance of Macron’s opponents on both the Left and Right: the Communist Party and the centre-right Les Républicains. It is an “unnatural alliance”, says Riester.

Les Républicains’ opposition was a surprise; the party usually supports free-trade agreements.

Macron is also keen to postpone consideration of the free trade agreement given farmers’ opposition to the agreement. Free trade agreements are receiving harsher scrutiny amid the EU-wide farmer protests, notes Oxford Analytica.

The rejection comes as a surprise hurdle for a free trade agreement that 17 EU states have already ratified, and which has mostly been in force since 2017.  (It is known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA.)

The story of the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada is nonetheless a tale of “how to snub Canada for more than a decade,” says Joris Larik, who teaches EU law at Leiden University.

Its rejection by the French Senate marked just “the latest episode of a saga” which has also seen Belgium’s province of Wallonia oppose the deal in 2016 (because of fears of pork and beef imports), while Flanders backed it. 

Cyprus then tried to block it in 2020 (because of fears it didn’t adequately protect Halloumi cheese), adds Larik.

Growing French opposition was likely to have ripple effects in encouraging smaller countries to take a more sceptical look at whether they want to ratify the deal, Oxford Analytica says.

Free trade is also an issue where Macron’s opponents on the Left and Right could connect with an increasingly protectionist French electorate.

In a March 2024 poll, 55 per cent of French people opposed the treaty, said Pierre Jacquel, a behavioural economics researcher at the Sorbonne. 

The Canada-EU trade agreement “is bad for the farmers of France and Europe. It only benefits the biggest agribusinesses,” French Green party MEP Marie Toussaint said on Twitter/X March 27.

The National Assembly narrowly supported the deal in 2019, but will now need to examine it again after the Senate’s vote.

With the farmer protests and growing mood of protectionism, it appears “unlikely that a majority in the National Assembly will vote in favour of the deal,” Oxford Analytica adds.

The National Assembly rejecting the free trade agreement would leave Macron’s government with a difficult choice.

It would then have to either notify Brussels that France cannot ratify the treaty, which would mean it could no longer be provisionally applied to all of the EU.

Alternatively, it could drag its heels – meaning the “unnatural alliance” of the deal’s opponents on the Left and Right, assisted by the new political force of farmers’ tractors, would have ammunition to protest against the government’s “subversion of democracy”.