Background Notes: France 03/98

U.S. Department of State 
Background Notes: France, March 1998 

Released by the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs.

Official Name: French Republic 



Area: 551,670 sq. km. (220,668 sq. mi.); largest West 
country, about four-fifths the size of Texas. 
Cities: Capital--Paris. Other cities--Marseille, Lyon, 
Toulouse, Strasbourg, Nice, Bordeaux.
Terrain: Varied. 
Climate: Temperate; similar to that of the eastern U.S. 


Nationality: Adjective--French. 
Population: 58 million. 
Annual growth rate: 0.5%. 
Ethnic groups: Celtic and Latin with Teutonic, Slavic, 
North African,
Indochinese, and Basque minorities. 
Religion: Roman Catholic 90%. 
Language: French. 
Education: Years compulsory--10. Literacy--99%. 
Health: Infant mortality rate--7/1,000. 
Work force (25 million): Services--66%; industry and 


Type: Republic. 
Constitution: September 28, 1958. 
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state); prime 
minister (head of government). 
Legislative--bicameral parliament (577-member National 
Assembly, 319-member Senate). Judicial--Court of Cassation (civil and 
criminal law), Council of State (administrative court), 
Constitutional Council (constitutional law). 
Subdivisions: 22 administrative regions containing 96 
departments (metropolitan France). 
Four overseas departments (Guadeloupe, Martinique, French 
Guiana, and Reunion); five overseas territories (New Caledonia, 
French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna Islands, and French Southern 
and Antarctic Territories); and two special status territories 
(Mayotte and St. Pierre and Miquelon). 
Political Parties: Rally for the Republic 
Union for French Democracy (a center-right conglomerate of 
5 parties: Democratic Force, Republican Party, and Radical Party are 
the three major components.) Socialist Party; Communist Party; 
National Front; Greens; Ecology Generation; various minor parties. 
Suffrage: Universal at 18.

Economy (1995)

GDP: $1.5 trillion. 
Avg. annual growth rate: 2.2%. 
Per capita GDP: $26,500. 
Agriculture: Products--grains (wheat, barley, corn); wines 
and spirits; dairy products; sugarbeets; oilseeds; meat and 
poultry; fruits and vegetables.
Industry: Types--aircraft, electronics, transportation, 
textiles, clothing, food processing, chemicals, machinery, steel. 
Trade (est.): Exports--$287 billion: chemicals, 
electronics, automobiles, automobile spare parts, machinery, aircraft, 
Imports--$266 billion: crude petroleum, electronics, 
machinery, chemicals, automobiles, automobile spare parts. Partners--
EU,U.S., Japan.


Since prehistoric times, France has been a crossroads of 
trade, travel, and invasion. Three basic European ethnic stocks--
Celtic, Latin, and Teutonic (Frankish)--have blended over the 
centuries to make up its present population. France's birth rate was 
among the highest in Europe from 1945 until the late 1960s. Since 
then, its birth rate has fallen but remains higher than that of 
most other west European countries. Traditionally, France has 
had a high level of immigration. About 90% of the people are 
Roman Catholic, less than 2% are Protestant, and about 1% are Jewish. 
More than
1 million Muslims immigrated in the 1960s and early 1970s 
from North Africa, especially Algeria. At the end of 1994, there 
were about 4 million persons of Muslim descent living in France. 

Education is free, beginning at age two, and mandatory 
between ages six and 16. The public education system is highly 
centralized. Private education is primarily Roman Catholic. Higher 
education in France began with the founding of the University of 
Paris in 1150. It now consists of 69 universities and special 
schools, such as the Grandes Ecoles, technical colleges, and 
vocational training institutions. 

The French language derives from the vernacular Latin 
spoken by the Romans in Gaul, although it includes many Celtic and 
Germanic words. French has been an international language for 
centuries and is a common second language throughout the world. It is 
one of five official languages at the United Nations. In 
Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the West Indies, French has been a 
unifying factor, particularly in those countries where it serves as the 
only  common language among a variety of indigenous languages and 


France was one of the earliest countries to progress from 
feudalism into the era of the nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded 
themselves with capable ministers, and French armies were among the 
most innovative, disciplined, and professional of their day. 

During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the 
dominant power in Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military 
campaigns of Louis and his successors led to chronic financial 
problems in the 18th century. Deteriorating economic conditions and 
popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges 
granted the nobility and clerics were among the principal causes of 
the French Revolution (1789-94). 

Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and 
egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of 
absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times--the Empire of 
Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the reign of Louis-
Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III. 

After the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic 
was established and lasted until the military defeat of 1940. 

World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and 
materiel. In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of 
border defenses (the Maginot Line) and alliances to offset 
resurgent German strength. 

France was defeated early in World War II, however, and 
occupied in 1940. The German victory left the French groping for a 
new policy and new leadership suited to the circumstances. On 
July 10, 1940, the Vichy Government was established. Its senior 
leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as 
the sending of French forced labor to Germany; in doing so, 
they claimed they hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French 

The German occupation proved quite costly, however, as a 
full one-half of France's public sector revenue was appropriated 
by Germany. After four years of occupation and strife, Allied 
forces liberated France in 1944. A bitter legacy carries over to 
the present day. A nation-wide debate has emerged over how much 
responsibility France should bear for the crimes and collaborations of 
the Vichy regime. 

France emerged from World War II to face a series of new 
problems. After a short period of provisional government initially 
led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a 
new constitution and established as a parliamentary form of 
government controlled by a series of coalitions. The mixed nature of 
the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures 
for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive 
cabinet crises and changes of government.

Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure 
collapsed as a result of the tremendous opposing pressures generated in 
the divisive Algerian issue. A threatened coup led the 
parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the government and 
prevent civil war. He became Prime Minister in June 1958 (at the 
beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected President in 
December of that year. 

Seven years later, in an occasion marking the first time in 
the 20th century that the people of France went to the polls to 
elect a president by direct ballot, de Gaulle won re-election 
with a 55% share of the vote, defeating Francois Mitterrand. In 
April 1969, President de Gaulle's government conducted a national 
referendum on the creation of 21 regions with limited political 
powers. The government's proposals were defeated, and de Gaulle 
subsequently resigned. 

Succeeding him as President of France have been Gaullist 
Georges Pompidou (1969-74), Independent Republican Valery Giscard 
d'Estaing (1974-81), Socialist Francois Mitterrand (1981-95), and 
neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (elected in spring 1995). 

President Mitterrand's second seven-year term ended in May 
1995. During his tenure, he stressed the importance of European 
integration and advocated the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on 
European economic and political union, which France's electorate 
narrowly approved in September 1992. 

Current President Jacques Chirac assumed office May 17, 
1995, after a campaign focused on the need to combat France's 
stubbornly high unemployment rate. The center of domestic attention 
soon shifted, however, to the economic reform and belt-
tightening measures required for France to meet the criteria for 
Economic and  Monetary Union (EMU) laid out by the Maastricht Treaty. In 
late  1995, France experienced its worst labor unrest in at least a 
decade, as  employees protested government cutbacks. On the foreign and 
security policy front, Chirac took a more assertive approach to 
protecting French peacekeepers in ex-Yugoslavia and helped promote the 
peace accords negotiated in Dayton and signed in Paris in December 1995. 
Chirac also took the major step of initiating discussions with 
NATO on possible French reintegration into NATO's military structure.


The constitution of the Fifth Republic was approved by 
public referendum on September 28, 1958. It greatly strengthened 
the authority of the executive in relation to parliament. Under 
the constitution, the president is elected directly for a 
seven-year term. Presidential arbitration assures regular functioning 
of the public powers and the continuity of the state. The 
president names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, 
commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties. 

The president may submit questions to a national referendum 
and can dissolve the National Assembly. In certain emergency 
situations, the president may assume full powers. Besides the 
president, the other main component of France's executive branch is the 
cabinet. Headed by the prime minister, who is the nominal head of 
government, the cabinet is composed of a varying number of ministers, 
ministers-delegates, and secretaries of state. Parliament meets for one 
nine month session each year. Under special circumstances an 
additional session can be called by the president. Although 
parliamentary powers are diminished from those existing under the Fourth 
Republic, the National Assembly can still cause a government to fall 
if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes 
to censure.  The National Assembly is the principal legislative body. 
Its deputies are directly elected to five-year terms, and all seats are 
voted on in each election. Senators are chosen by an electoral 
college for nine-year terms, and one-third of the Senate is renewed 
every three years. The Senate's legislative powers are limited; 
the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a 
disagreement between the two houses. The government has a strong 
influence in shaping the agenda of parliament. The government also 
can link its life to any legislative text, and unless a motion of 
censure is introduced and voted, the text is considered adopted 
without a vote. 

The most distinctive feature of the French judicial system 
is that it is divided into the Constitutional Council and the 
Council of State. The Constitutional Council examines legislation 
and decides whether it conforms to the constitution. Unlike the 
U.S. Supreme Court, it only considers legislation that is 
referred to it by parliament, the prime minister, or the president; 
moreover, it considers legislation before it is promulgated. The 
Council of State has a separate function from the Constitutional 
Council and provides recourse to individual citizens who have 
claims against the administration. 

Traditionally, decision-making in France has been highly 
centralized, with each of France's departments headed by a prefect 
appointed by the central government. In 1982, the national government 
passed legislation to decentralize authority by giving a wide 
range of administrative and fiscal powers to local elected 
officials. In March 1986, regional councils were directly elected for 
the first time. 

Principal Government Officials 
President--Jacques Chirac 
Prime Minister--Lionel Jospin
Ambassador to the United States--Francois Bujon de l'Estang 
Ambassador to the United Nations--Alain Dejammet 

France maintains an embassy in the U.S. at 4101 Reservoir 
Rd. NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel. 202-944-6000). 


During his first two years in office, President Chirac's 
prime minister was Alain Juppe, who served contemporaneously as 
leader of Chirac's neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) 
party. Chirac and Juppe benefited from a very large, if rather unruly, 
majority in the National Assembly (470 out of 577 seats). Mindful 
that the government might have to take politically costly 
decisions in advance of the legislative elections planned for spring 
1998, in order to ensure France met the Maastricht criteria for 
the single European currency, Chirac decided in April 1997 to 
call early elections. The Left, however, led by Socialist Party 
First Secretary Lionel Jospin, unexpectedly won a solid National 
Assembly majority (319 seats, with 289 required for an absolute 
majority) in the two rounds of balloting, which took place May 25 and 
June 1, 1997. President Chirac named Jospin prime minister on 
June 2, and Jospin went on to form a government composed 
primarily of Socialist ministers, along with some ministers from 
allied parties of the Left, such as the Communists and the Greens. 
Jospin stated his support for continued European integration and 
his intention to keep France on the path of toward Economic and 
Monetary Union, albeit with greater attention to social concerns. 

The tradition in periods of "cohabitation" 
(president of one party, prime minister of another) is for the 
president to exercise the primary role in foreign and security 
policy, with the dominant role in domestic policy falling to the prime 
minister and his government. Jospin stated, however, that he would 
not a priori leave any domain exclusively to the president.


With a 1995 GDP of more than $1.5 trillion, France is the 
fourth-largest Western industrialized economy. It has substantial 
agricultural resources, a diversified modern industrial system, and a 
highly skilled labor force. In 1995, France's economic growth rate 
was 2.2%. The estimated growth rate for 1996 is 1.4%. 

Government policy stresses investment promotion and 
maintenance of fiscal and monetary discipline. It seeks to ensure the 
franc's stability and strength within the European Monetary System. 
The government continues to exert considerable control over the 
industrial sector both through planning and regulatory activities and 
through direct state ownership, although a modest privatization 
program has been implemented. This policy has helped keep France's 
inflation rate (1.8% in 1995) low compared with rates among the other 
Group of Seven (G-7) industrial countries. 

One main area of concern, however, continues to be an 
unemployment rate that is well over 12%. France's well-developed and 
diversified industrial enterprises generate over one-half of the GDP 
and employ about one-fifth of the workforce. This distribution is 
similar to that of other highly industrialized nations. The most 
important areas of industrial production include steel and related 
products, aluminum, chemicals, and mechanical and electrical goods. 

France also has been very successful in developing dynamic 
telecommunications, aerospace, and weapons sectors. With virtually no 
domestic oil production, France has relied heavily on the development of 
nuclear power, which now produces about 80% of the country's 
electrical energy. Nuclear waste is stored on site at reprocessing 

Membership in France's labor unions accounts for about 10% 
of the workforce. Included in the composition of the several 
competing union confederations are the largest, oldest, and most 
powerful unions: the Communist-dominated General Labor 
Confederation, the Workers' Force, and the French Democratic 
Confederation of Labor.

France is the second-largest trading nation in Western 
Europe (after Germany). In 1996, France achieved a record trade 
surplus of over $20 billion. The surplus was partly attributable to 
the surge in exports due to greater competitiveness of French 
products, which, in turn, was partly due to low domestic inflation 
and wage costs. For 1996, the country's trade surplus rose even 
higher. Its total trade for 1995 amounted to more than $550 
billion. Trade with European Union (EU) countries accounts for 60% of 
French trade. 

In 1995, U.S.-France trade totaled about $40 billion. U.S. 
exports accounted for 7.8% (or about $21 billion) of France's total 
imports. U.S. industrial chemicals, aircraft and engines, electronic 
components, telecommunications, computer software, computers and 
peripherals, analytical and scientific instrumentation, medical 
instruments and supplies, broadcasting equipment, and programming and 
franchising are particularly attractive to French importers. 

Principal French exports to the United States are aircraft 
and engines, beverages, electrical equipment, chemicals, 
cosmetics, and luxury products. 

France is the European Union's leading agricultural 
producer, accounting for about one third of all agricultural land 
within the EU. Northern France is characterized by large wheat 
farms. Dairy products, pork, poultry and apple production are 
concentrated in the Western region. Beef production is located in 
Central France, while the production of fruits, vegetables, and wine 
ranges  from Central to Southern France. France is a large producer of 
many agricultural products and is currently expanding its 
forestry and fishery industries. The implementation of the Common 
Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Uruguay Round of the GATT Agreement 
have resulted in reforms in the agricultural sector of the 

France is the world's second largest agricultural producer, 
after the United States. However, the destination of 70% of its 
exports are other EU Member States. Wheat, beef, pork, poultry, and 
dairy products are the principal exports. The United States, 
although the second largest exporter to France, faces stiff 
competition from domestic production, other EU Member States and other 
third countries. U.S. agricultural exports to France, totaling 
some $600 million annually, consist primarily of soybeans and 
products, feeds and fodders, seafood, and consumer oriented products, 
especially snack foods and nuts. French exports to the United States 
are mainly cheese, processed products and wine. They amount to 
over $900 million annually. 


A charter member of the United Nations, France holds one of 
the permanent seats in the Security Council and is a member of 
most of its specialized and related agencies. 

Europe. France is a leader in Western Europe because of
its size, location, strong economy, membership in European 
organizations, strong military posture, and energetic diplomacy. France 
generally has worked to strengthen the global economic and political 
influence of the EU and its role in common European defense. It views 
Franco-German cooperation as the foundation of efforts to enhance 
European security.

President Chirac has declared his support for eventual 
implementation of economic and monetary union and is committed to 
maintaining France's central role in the EU. France remains a firm 
supporter of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe 
(OSCE) and other efforts at cooperation. 

Middle East. France supports the Middle East Peace Process
as revitalized by the 1991 Madrid peace conference. In this 
context, France backed the establishment of a Palestinian homeland 
and the withdrawal of Israel from all occupied territories. 
Recognizing the need for a comprehensive peace agreement, France 
supports the involvement of all Arab parties and Israel in a 
multilateral peace process. France has been active in promoting a 
regional economic dialogue and has played an active role in 
providing assistance to the Palestinian Authority. 

Africa. France plays a significant role in Africa, 
especially in its former colonies, through extensive aid programs, 
commercial activities, military agreements, and cultural impact. In 
those former colonies where the French presence remains 
important, France contributes to political, military, and social 

Asia. France has extensive political and commercial 
relations with Asian countries, including China, Japan and Southeast 
Asia as well as an increasing presence in regional fora. France 
was instrumental in launching the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) 
process which could eventually emerge as a competitor to APEC. 
France is seeking to broaden its commercial presence in China and 
will pose a competitive challenge to U.S. business, particularly 
in aerospace, hi-tech and luxury markets. In Southeast Asia, 
France was an architect of the Paris Accords, which ended the 
conflict in Cambodia, and looks forward to reinforcing France's 
influence in the region during the Francophone summit to be held in 
Vietnam in the summer of 1997. 

Latin America. France supports strengthening democratic
institutions in Latin America. It supports the ongoing 
efforts to restore democracy to Haiti and seeks to expand its trade 
relations with all of Latin America.

Security Issues. French military doctrine is based on the
concepts of national independence, nuclear deterrence and 
military sufficiency. France is a founding member of the North 
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and has worked actively with 
Allies to adapt NATO--internally and externally--to the post-Cold 
War environment. In December 1995, France announced that it 
would increase its participation in NATO's military wing, 
including the Military Committee (the French withdrew from NATO's 
military bodies in 1966 while remaining full participants in the 
Alliance's political councils). President Chirac has suggested that 
France may return to NATO's integrated military structure, 
depending on progress toward an increased European Security and 
Defense Identity within the Alliance. Paris hosted the May 1997 
NATO-Russia Summit for the signing of the Founding Act on on Mutual 
Relations, Cooperation and Security.

Outside of NATO, France has actively and heavily 
participated in recent peacekeeping/coalition efforts in Africa, the 
Middle East and the Balkans, often taking the lead in these 

France has undertaken a major restructuring to develop a 
professional military which will be smaller, more rapidly deployable and 
better tailored for operations outside of mainland France. Key 
elements of the restructuring include reducing personnel, bases and 
headquarters, and rationalizing equipment and the armament industry. 
French active-duty military at the beginning of 1997 numbered 
approximately 475,000, of which nearly 60,000 were assigned outside of 
metropolitan France. The overall force is expected to decline by 
approximately 25,000 per year through 2002.

France places a high priority on arms control and non-
proliferation. It supported the indefinite extension of the Non-
Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995. After conducting a final series of 
six nuclear tests, the French signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty 
(CTBT) in 1996. France has implemented a moratorium on the 
production, export and use of anti-personnel landmines and supports 
negotiations leading toward a universal ban. The French are key players 
in the adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces 
in Europe (CFE) to the new strategic environment.

France is an active participant in the major supplier 
regimes designed to restrict transfer of technologies that could 
lead to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: the 
Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Australia Group (for chemical and 
biological weapons) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). 
France has signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention 


Relations between the United States and France are active 
and cordial. Mutual visits by high-level officials are 
conducted on a regular basis. Bilateral contact at the cabinet level has 
traditionally been active. France and the United States share common 
values and have parallel policies on most political, economic, and 
security issues. Differences are discussed frankly and have not been 
allowed to impair the pattern of close cooperation that 
characterizes relations between the two countries. 

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials 
Ambassador--Felix G. Rohatyn
Charge d'Affaires--W. Robert Pearson

Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs--Michael Parmly 
Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs--John Madeiros
Financial Attache--Stephen Donovan
Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs--Emilio Iodice
Counselor for Scientific and Technological Affairs--Jerome 
Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs--Lawrence Colbert
Minister-Counselor for Administrative Affairs--William 

Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs--Christopher Snow 
Defense Attache--Col. Peter Herrly (U.S. Army) 

Consuls General 
Consulate General, Marseille--Joyce Leader 
Consulate General, Strasbourg--Steven Wagenseil

The U.S. embassy in France is located at 2 Avenue Gabriel, 
Paris 8 (tel. [33] (1) 4312-2222). The United States also is 
represented in Paris by its mission to the Organization for Economic 
Cooperation and Development. 


The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program 
provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel
Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends
that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular
Information Sheets exist for all countries and
include information on immigration practices, currency 
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and 
security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in 
the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to
disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and 
other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose 
significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of 
this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular 
Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-
3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets also are 
available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB).
To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it 
will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications 
program to N-8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal 
emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the
password is info (Note: Lower case is required).
The CABB also carries international security information 
from the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's 
Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for 
Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining 
passports  and planning a safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the 
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 
371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling
abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens 
Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and 
holidays,call 202-647-4000. 

Passport Services information can be obtained
by calling the 24-hour, 7-day a week automated system ($.35 
per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-
Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-
Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 
(TDD: 1-888-498-3648) 

Travelers can check the latest health information with
the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 
Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives the most recent 
health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, 
and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and 
countries.A booklet entitled Health Information for International 
Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the 
U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. 
(202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, 
currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of 
interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure
from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for 
this country, see "Principal Government Officials" 
listing in this publication). 

U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling
in dangerous areas, are encouraged to register at the U.S. 
embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy
Officials" listing in this publication). This may help 
family members contact you in case of an emergency. 

Further Electronic Information: 

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Collection, which also is accessible at gopher://

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published
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USFAC archives information on the Department of State Foreign 
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National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by
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of trade-related information, including Country Commercial 
Guides. It is available on the Internet (
and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 
for more information.

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