The United States could slap new tariffs on French cheese and sparkling wine

Posted at 9:50 PM, Dec 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-02 22:50:26-05

US trade officials proposed a wave of tariffs on French goods Monday as they released a report finding that a new French tax on digital services — affecting large American tech companies such as Facebook and Google — represents a barrier to trade.

The list of proposed US tariffs covers dozens of products, including cheeses, beauty products, handbags, sparkling wine and porcelainware.

Roughly $2.4 billion in French products could be subject to new taxes of up to 100%, the office of the United States Trade Representative said. The public will have until early January to weigh in on the proposal.

The report and proposed tariffs could drive a further wedge between members of the European Union and President Donald Trump, who in July threatened France with "substantial reciprocal action" if it moved forward with its digital services tax.

The French measure, which was approved this summer, charges a 3% tax on revenues earned by companies that provide digital services in the country. A number of other countries including Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom are considering passing similar measures, in what US and tech industry officials worry could be a fragmenting of the global corporate tax system.

Monday's report by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is likely to renew an international debate over the power of large tech platforms and how they should be regulated around the globe.

Tech industry groups welcomed USTR's report.

"Discriminatory digital services taxes act as a trade barrier for innovative American companies and small businesses often face the biggest burden from them," said the Internet Association, a tech trade group, in a statement. It called the French tax "one of a growing number of concerning unilateral tax regimes around the world."

On Monday, Cedric O, France's secretary of state for digital economy, kicked off a weeklong tour of the United States beginning in Washington, where he met with current and former officials from the White House, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. He is also expected to meet with US lawmakers and Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO.

"At a time when the European Union is organizing itself to speak with a single voice, cooperation with the United States and its actors is essential to promoting a new digital world," O said in a statement. "The survival of our model of society, based on the preservation of individual and collective freedoms and rights, depends on it."

In August, the United States and France announced a compromise on the tax issue. Under the agreement, the United States would temporarily refrain from imposing new retaliatory trade measures on French products in connection with the digital services tax. That moratorium expired last week.

Meanwhile, France said it would refund US companies the difference in tax between what it will collect and what companies will be required to pay under a comprehensive tax plan being developed at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those discussions are still ongoing.

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