French minister meets with members of UC Berkeley to discuss free trade

Audrey McNamara/Staff

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On Wednesday, a visiting French minister met with notable members of UC Berkeley to discuss issues facing the fields of globalization and free trade.

The participants in the panel — which was held in Berkeley’s International House and was moderated by Jeroen DeWulf, director of the Institute of European Studies — were French Minister Matthias Fekl, campus economics professor Andres Rodriguez-Clare and campus history professor Carla Hesse. Fekl — the Minister of Foreign Trade, Tourism, and Promotion of French Nationals Abroad — spoke on the changing nature of trade agreements and discussed ways to address concerns in negotiations with the other panelists.

“Citizens have the feeling and it is not wrong that trade negotiations are (just) held for the sake of it,” Fekl said. “An agreement that cannot be justified to public opinion should not be negotiated.”

At the event, several panelists noted that trade negotiations, largely based on targeting tariffs in previous decades, had moved beyond those issues in recent years. Countries now examine health, wage, employment and environmental standards and issues.

“In the words of the economist Richard Baldwin, we have gone beyond the 20th century that helps to sell goods to the 21st century trade that helps to make goods,” Fekl said.

Fekl and Stephane Re, a member of the Consulate General of France, said they chose UC Berkeley as the location of the conference for its progressive history and culture, which lay tangent to their motives.

At the event, Hesse said democracy and free trade were often perceived as opponents, but that it had not always been that way. She argued that free trade helped the democratization of printing and publishing, which in turn increased the freedom of commerce that went hand in hand with the empowerment of women.

Other panelists including Rodriguez-Clare, however, presented issues that came with free trade, such as detriments to labor markets and the lower and middle classes.

“Just think about how much higher (a wage is) for the worker just for being in the U.S.,” Rodriquez-Clare said. “Any kind of imbalance in the economic system will create pressure to equilibrate — to bring that into balance.”

Fekl also discussed the impact of terrorism on tourism in France in response to a question from the audience, saying that there is no safe place in the world today and no zero-risk situation. Re added that tourists would understand the need for increased security measures and would be reassured rather than see it as a bad sign.

All the panelists agreed that public perception of trade negotiations needed improvement. Rodriguez-Clare said he believes this issue can be tackled with increased conferences and public awareness.

“There’s a lot of politics of the bad kind, and we need to have more educated, informed discussion,” Rodriguez-Clare said.

Contact Lillian Dong at [email protected].