LONDON -- These are tough times for the pride of British manhood.
France's new female prime minister thinks men on this side of the Channel are not interested in women. Indeed, she has even suggested that one in four may be gay.
This has touched a sensitive nerve in a country whose men endured for years the image-sapping success of one of the London stage's longest-running farces -- "No Sex, Please, We're British."
If all this were not enough to make the Englishman's stiff upper lip quiver, the current British edition of Esquire magazine reports that Englishwomen regard their partners' romantic "repertoire" as "hopeless."
In Paris, Prime Minister Edith Cresson put the problem thus: "It's a question of education, and I consider it something of a weakness."
Her disdainful view of the Englishman's warmth -- she passed similarly harsh judgments on American and German men -- was expressed in an interview four years ago, long before her appointment as prime minister, but only now published, to her embarrassment.
"The English are not interested in women. It is astonishing. I remember strolling about in London and men in the streets don't look at you. In Paris, the men look at you all the time," she said, adding the suspicion that one in four Englishmen might be gay.
First to step forward to defend British manhood -- though not very gallantly -- was Antony Marlow, Conservative member of Parliament and father of nine.
Mr. Marlow opined that the failure of English men to "fancy an elderly French woman" -- Ms. Cresson is 57 -- was not to be confused with impotence.
"The virility of honorable members really isn't a matter for me," grunted the speaker of the House, dismayed at the way the debate was going and who, as the Times of London's parliamentary writer noticed, was himself looking "very macho in his wig and tights."
Anthony Hartley, author of a book on Gaullism and authority on French literature, said that despite years of cross-Channel sniping at each other as "comical caricatures," the British and French actually felt mutual respect.
Ms. Cresson, he suggested, had introduced a new element into the historic character assassination -- the allegation of widespread English homosexuality. But he pointed out that France actually had a higher incidence of AIDS than did Britain.
He told The Sun: "What used to be regarded as 'la maladie anglaise' [English sickness] in late 19th century French literature was sadism. The traditional picture of the British man was very much that of being a chap constantly tying girls up and beating them. Homosexuality didn't come into it."
He added: "I think sex plays a much lesser part in French life than it does in English. The French regard it more or less like food. It is not something you worry about."
Largely, the battle has been fought in the press.
The London Times' man in Paris, Philip Jacobson, cast a perhaps biased eye over French gallantry and found it wanting. His evidence: an opinion poll that suggested that 95 percent of French couples defined happiness between the sheets as a partner who did not take an unfair share of the bed.
"Hardly the raging currents of passion which Madame Cresson would have us believe throb through the veins of the French, as opposed to the British, man in the street," he wrote.
At the other end of the newspaper spectrum here, the tabloid Sun quoted various "hunky" British males in their own defense under the headline "Brits blast poofter jibe from Mrs. Frog."
("Poofter" is a pejorative the English use to describe gay men.)
The London Sun took issue with Ms. Cresson's gay allegation, saying, "That's a bit rich coming from the leader of a nation where most men carry handbags and kiss each other in public. On both cheeks."
"They don't call Paaris 'Gay Paree' for nothing, you know." Lesley Garner, the female social commentator for the Daily Telegraph, took issue with the male political writer who suggested that the only way for British manly pride to be restored was for a British politician to pinch the French prime minister's bottom.
"Personally," wrote Ms. Garner, "I am sure that having her bottom pinched could only confirm Madame Cresson in her hurtful, shocking and uncomfortably accurate view that British men are ill-at-ease with women and don't know how to treat them."
Ms. Garner suggested: "The horrible disadvantage of a public [private boarding] school education is much to blame."
She explained: "Men grow used to the company of males and can deal with women only if they turn them into chaps."
The Independent's editorial writer pointed out that the Anglo-Saxons had escaped comparatively lightly from the withering judgment of Ms. Cresson, who once called the Japanese "ants" and "little yellow men who sit up all night thinking how to screw us [commercially]."
The row has reverberated back across the Channel. Ms. Cresson has questioned whether belated publication of the controversial interview was "le fairplay."
She insists she is actually very fond of Englishmen, although adding, "They are certainly more reserved in their behavior toward women than the French, but each country has its traditions and culture."