France was "inches away" from breaking ties with Canada over a fishing dispute because of the former conservative government's chauvinist policy, socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard said on Saturday.

Speaking at a general election campaign rally on the outskirts of Paris, he said the dispute over fishing rights in waters off Newfoundland and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon must be solved by negotiation."We were just inches away from breaking diplomatic relations with Canada, in the name of a chauvinist national policy and table-thumping that passed for negotiation," Rocard said.

The prime minister has a large lead over the conservatives ahead of the two-round election on July 5 and 12.

Rocard, who discussed the fishing row with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney two days ago in Paris, was criticizing the tough stand taken by his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who ordered the French navy to seize a Canadian trawler.

He did not say whether the Chirac government planned to to initiate a break in ties or whether Paris risked provoking a breach by Ottawa.

Chirac was widely condemned for trying to impress voters by a flurry of dramatic foreign policy coups in the final days before he lost the May 8 presidential election to socialist Francois Mitterrand, who appointed Rocard two weeks ago.

Rocard said: "Canada's case is not very reasonable but France prides itself on seeking solutions to all its conflicts via negotiation."