Skip to main content

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledges applause from lawmakers at the French National Assembly in Paris on April 17, 2018.Francois Mori/AP

As the first Canadian Prime Minister to address France’s National Assembly, Justin Trudeau likely expected a warm welcome and polite applause when he rose to speak in the ornate chamber on Tuesday. Instead, the Prime Minister ran into a smattering of boos and some catcalls when he mentioned the Canada-EU trade deal, a sign of how divisive the agreement has become in parts of Europe.

Several MPs, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left La France Insoumise, or Unbowed France, and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen, could be seen heckling the Prime Minister when he talked up the benefits of the deal, and Ms. Le Pen left the chamber before the end of his speech. Dozens of other MPs applauded the Prime Minister and signalled to the others to be quiet.

The deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, was signed by Canada and the European Union in 2016 and most of its provisions were put into effect last September. However, the 28 EU member states, plus several regional legislatures, must still ratify parts of the deal, including the dispute-resolution system, which has faced opposition across Europe. France has yet to ratify CETA, although it has won strong backing from President Emmanuel Macron. His party, La République En Marche, also holds 312 seats in the 577-seat assembly, making ratification of CETA almost a certainty.

Mr. Trudeau got a warm welcome at the start of his speech on Tuesday and he received several rounds of applause from MPs when he spoke about the strong bonds between France and Canada. But his comments about CETA soon changed the mood in the chamber.

“Together, we have chosen a progressive approach to trade,” Mr. Trudeau said, adding that the deal will create jobs, protect the environment and uphold workers’ rights. He hailed CETA as a new generation of trade deal, adding that it “goes farther than any other commercial agreement in the world.” And he said since most of it has come into force, Canadian imports from France have climbed 4 per cent and agricultural trade is up 8 per cent. Canadian investments in France have also climbed 23 per cent, he said. “CETA is the start of a new era in co-operation and integration,” he said. “If France can’t ratify a free-trade agreement with Canada, what other country could it [sign an agreement with]?”

Those comments clearly irritated several MPs, including Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen, who both ran against Mr. Macron in the presidential election last year on platforms that fiercely opposed CETA.

“At the start of his speech, he offered words that sounded good,” Clémentine Autain, one of 17 a La France Insoumise MPs, said afterward. “But CETA poses a serious problem.”

The agreement “has been in application since September without any validation by the people. None,” she added. “And the people of France were not informed about what will happen because the negotiations were done in secret, which was terrible.”

Ms. Autain said CETA will damage environmental protection, hurt farmers and threaten workers’ rights because it gives too much power to multinational corporations. Mr. Trudeau “presented something that is not the reality of CETA. It’s the opposite of what he said.”

She cited the dispute-resolution system in particular as a major concern. The agreement creates a new tribunal called the Investment Court System (ICS), which consists of a panel of judges that would settle disputes. Canada and the EU have hailed the ICS as a breakthrough in trade relations and the EU has hoped it would lead to the creation of an international trade court.

However, critics say the ICS hands too much power to foreign companies, which can sue governments if they change policies that hurt company operations. Opponents say that that limits governments’ ability to protect the environment, worker rights and health care. And some argue the ICS is a dangerous move toward private courts and away from domestic legal systems. Belgium has challenged the ICS at the European Court of Justice and politicians in several countries, including France and Britain, have questioned the system.

Despite the rocky reception in the National Assembly, Mr. Macron offered praise for CETA after a meeting with Mr. Trudeau on Monday. During a news conference after the meeting, the President backed CETA and Mr. Trudeau said he looked forward to France ratifying the agreement.

Mr. Trudeau heads to London, where he will meet the Queen and British Prime Minister Theresa May, and attend the biennial Commonwealth Summit, which is drawing more than 50 leaders beginning on Thursday.