France Names First Woman Prime Minister


President Francois Mitterrand on Wednesday named Edith Cresson, an outspoken Socialist Party loyalist known for her strong anti-Japanese sentiments, as France's first woman prime minister.

Cresson, 57, replaced Michel Rocard, who resigned after three years in the job as his minority government found itself stalemated in the National Assembly, no longer able to push through legislation.

The change is not considered a setback for Rocard, who has maintained high public approval ratings throughout his term despite facing, and barely surviving, 11 votes of censure called by the opposition.

Cresson is married and the mother of two daughters. She will be the fifth prime minister to serve under Mitterrand in his 10 years as president.

In a speech to the nation Thursday night, Mitterrand stressed developing European economic and political unification as the key factor behind his choice of Cresson as prime minister.

Until she resigned in October to take a job in private industry, Cresson served as minister of European affairs, representing France in negotiations with other European leaders leading up to the 1993 deadline for a borderless, unified economic market.

Previously she served as minister of agriculture and minister of foreign trade. She was also the first woman to serve in both of those posts.

Because of this background, Mitterrand said, "Madame Cresson, who has demonstrated everywhere . . . competence and character, appeared to me to be the best choice to direct the government toward the objective I have set for it--Objective 1993."

Mitterrand indicated that he intends to make the European issue the pillar of his policy during the four years before his term expires in 1995.

But he also made it clear he has an eye on parliamentary elections set for 1993. Cresson made a name for herself as a political campaigner when she was one of the few Socialists to win in 1983 municipal elections that went very poorly for most other party regulars. Her victory in the southwestern city of Chatellerault is said to have greatly impressed Mitterrand.

"Madame Cresson is a fighter who doesn't give up," said Catherine Trautman, mayor of Strasbourg and one of many feminist political leaders who welcomed the appointment. "She has never been afraid to go through the mill."

But the outspoken Cresson could also prove to be a liability for Mitterrand because of her combative personality. During a stint as minister of agriculture during Mitterrand's first term, she enraged French farmers with her reforms of the highly protected agricultural market, at one point having to escape demonstrating farmers in a government helicopter.

With typical aplomb, she said afterward: "French farmers are such conservatives that giving them a female minister, a Socialist to boot, nearly amounted to a provocation."

As minister of European affairs, she sparked a row with Japan by attacking the Japanese industrial policy as "an invasion."

During a 1989 interview with The Times, for example, she referred to the Japanese as being "just like ants, eating you up," and went on: "You just don't notice it. You don't feel it. You don't see it."

Her anti-Japanese statements prompted a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman in 1990 to warn that "a continuation of such utterances will only discourage prospective Japanese investors from investing in France and encourage them to look elsewhere." On an official visit to Japan at the time, Prime Minister Rocard was forced to apologize for his junior minister's remarks.

During European debates on industrial policy, Cresson called for extremely tough restrictions on imports of Japanese cars to the 12-nation European Economic Community. France now limits Japanese imports to 3% of its market, and Cresson urged something similar for the greater European market.

"Look at what the Japanese have done to the American automobile industry," she said in a controversial interview with the Journal du Dimanche. "It's a disaster."

Cresson, a fluent English speaker, is fond of quoting from Paul Kennedy's book, "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," when she conducts interviews with American journalists or speaks before Western business groups. Her apocalyptic view of a U.S. economy undermined by Japanese "invaders" is considered a key to her attitude about the European market.

Some U.S. analysts fear that Cresson feels overly protective of the European market, leaning more toward the "Fortress Europe" idea than the free and open market the Americans would prefer.

Because Cresson at this stage is not considered a likely presidential candidate when Mitterrand retires in 1995, her selection as prime minister is not likely to upset the various pretenders to succeed the septuagenarian Mitterrand.

Those vying for Mitterrand's title include National Assembly President Laurent Fabius, who is generally considered Mitterrand's hand-picked dauphin; Minister of Education Lionel Jospin, and Rocard himself.

A major reshuffle of the government is expected to be announced by Cresson today.

Defense Minister Pierre Joxe, a recent appointee who was a central figure in France's decision to participate with the United States and other allies in the Persian Gulf War, is expected to remain in his post.

However, Roland Dumas, one of Mitterrand's closest advisers, is rumored to be leaving his key job as minister of foreign affairs, possibly for the post of minister of justice. The Justice Ministry has been a political hot seat recently because of scandals involving illegal financing and kickbacks in the Socialist Party as well as other French political parties.

Profile: Edith Cresson

Born: Jan. 27, 1934

Birthplace: Boulogne-sur-Seine, France

Education: Ph.D. in demography, degree in commercial affairs.

Career highlights: Mayor of Thure, 1977; Socialist deputy of European Parliament in Strasbourg, 1979-81; member of Parliament from Vienne region, 1981; France's first female agricultural minister, 1981-83; mayor of Chatellerault, 1983; minister for foreign trade, 1983-86; minister for European affairs, 1988-90.

Quote: "(Male politicians) are all more or less the same. When they form a government, they hand out the (interesting) jobs and, when there is nothing left to give, they say 'Let's bring a woman into the Cabinet. It will liven things up a bit.' "

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