OTTAWA (AP) _ After more than a year of fruitless diplomatic efforts, the Canadian government is going to the World Trade Organization to contest a French ban on imports of asbestos products.

Trade Minister Sergio Marchi, announcing on Thursday the move ``with some regret,'' said it was time to end the lengthy debate.

``While we wanted to give public diplomacy every effort, we never envisioned that public diplomacy would be an open-ended process with no closure,'' he said.

The first step in the WTO complaint process is to ask for formal consultations on the dispute. If the dispute is not resolved within 60 days, a panel is appointed to hear evidence and issue a ruling, a process that can take several months.

At issue is a ban on virtually all asbestos products imposed by France in January 1997. Exposure to asbestos fibers has been linked to cancer and a variety of other respiratory diseases.

Canada agrees that certain uses _ such as blowing loose fibers into building walls for insulation, a practice no longer employed _ carry an unacceptable health risk.

But it contends that other uses, such as incorporating the fibers into asbestos cement, are safe, and a total ban is therefore an unwarranted trade restriction.

``The issue is safe use,'' said Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale. ``Where exposure and risk cannot be properly controlled, use in these specific instances should be prohibited. But not an outright ban across the board.''

Asbestos mining and processing constitute a relatively modest $175 million-a-year industry in Canada that employs some 2,000 people.

But the industry is heavily concentrated in Quebec, where both the separatist provincial government and the federalist opposition have been pressing federal authorities to act.

Exports to France make up about $3.5 million worth of products a year, but the government fears the ban could spread across Europe and eventually affect other markets in South America and Asia.

``This goes beyond the French market,'' said Marchi. ``This is obviously going to impact asbestos worldwide. That's why we take this issue seriously.''