Becoming France's first female prime minister hasn't meant glory for Cresson

July 10, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

PARIS -- The most biting assessment of Edith Cresson, France's first female prime minister, comes not from Socialist Party rivals, political pundits or even the merciless public opinion polls.

It comes from a nightly pre-news puppet show.

On "The Bebete Show," a frog named God, representing French President Francois Mitterrand, addresses a groveling, servile Cresson doll as "a ma botte" -- at my boot.

"This character is obviously grotesque and has no brains. It's all the caricatures of woman that you find in this little animal," Mrs. Cresson told a group of journalists this week. "It's a real problem.

"But it's going to calm down now," she quipped, because the show is into summer reruns made before she ascended to the premiership.

Mrs. Cresson has been in the job less than two months and has probably known the briefest of honeymoons. Since Mr. Mitterrand named her prime minister, saying it was time for a "new elan" that would inspire confidence in the government, the government has been plagued by one major crisis after another.

Unemployment figures are climbing to 9 percent, the highest level since the mid-1980s, with no letup in sight. The social security system is collapsing, requiring Mrs. Cresson to announce increases in payroll deductions. And in Parisian suburbs and the south of France, the offspring of North African immigrants clash nightly with police.

Her popularity has taken a beating, dropping in opinion polls 11 points in one month, with 50 percent of the people saying they don't trust her and only 38 percent saying they do. Mr. Mitterrand, who enjoyed a 93 percent approval rating immediately after the Persian Gulf war, has plummeted to 48 percent along with her.

Even Mrs. Cresson's critics will acknowledge that she has inherited a difficult bag of problems.

While the Socialists grapple with unemployment and immigrant rioting, the French are showing less and less patience with foreigners.

Complaints by the conservative former prime minister, Jacques Chirac, about the "noise and smell" of immigrants boosted his popularity rating by 5 points in a week. The far-right leader of the National Front Party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is collecting approval ratings of 14 percent to 18 percent these days.

But Mrs. Cresson has created some of her own problems. For all her tough talk about sending clear signals to the public, she has had to reverse position several times since taking office, each time eroding confidence in her leadership.

While she possesses the combativeness of Britain's Margaret Thatcher, she has none of Mrs. Thatcher's authority. In France, most power is vested in the president.

For example, Mrs. Cresson had wanted to create a super-ministry comparable to Japan's Ministry for International Trade and Industry that would coordinate French government policy with the needs of private industry.

But the idea was ruled impractical for France. French society was too undisciplined to accept the edicts of government ministries, and the ministries themselves are mini-fiefdoms unlikely to surrender authority to a super-ministry.

Mrs. Cresson also made enemies by saying that "I don't give a damn about the stock market" and then having to reassure nervous financial circles with a tightening of monetary policy.

And her less than enviable relationship with the powerful finance minister, Pierre Beregovoy, has limited her room for maneuver. However strained the relation, though, Mrs. Cresson cannot demand the departure of Mr. Beregovoy, whose strict monetary policy gets high marks from business leaders.

"The franc would take a bath and the French stock market would take a bath if Beregovoy were to leave," said an international banking expert.

All Mr. Mitterrand's talk of a "new elan" notwithstanding, Mrs. Cresson has brought on only five new ministers. And with her term expected to run only through the legislative elections of 1993, she is considered a short-timer who cannot make much of a difference before then.

Last week, she gave a much-publicized garden party for business leaders and was widely quoted in television interviews as being very happy about her good relations with business and industry leaders.

But in a poll among those same leaders published in the French financial magazine Tribune de l'Expansion, 55 percent said they had no confidence in her, against 24 percent who supported her. Asked whether they had more confidence in Mrs. Cresson or Michel Rocard, her predecessor, 64 percent of France's top business leaders chose Mr. Rocard.

Mrs. Cresson may find herself backing down yet again before the week is out.

She announced Monday that France should run special flights to return illegal immigrants to their home countries. "It's unacceptable that out of 10 cases that judges declare illegal, only 3.6 should return home," she said.

A 1986 charter flight that then-Prime Minister Chirac ordered to send 101 Malians home raised uncomfortable memories for some French of the mass deportations under Nazi occupation. Mrs. Cresson denied that the decision represented a slide toward the right to woo back voters.

But the new interior minister, Philippe Marchand, said Monday night that he would not be a party to enforcing Mrs. Cresson's decision.

Mrs. Cresson warned that she would not tolerate dissension. Any minister who would not support her decision, she said, would be out of her government. Pronto.

Some political observers figure that a terrible beginning may not be such a bad thing for Mrs. Cresson.

"This free fall of hers in the polls is a transitory judgment," said Henri Rey of the National Center for Scientific Research. "She is relatively unknown. She will end up constructing a more positive image."

Nevertheless, few expect Mrs. Cresson to carry the Socialists to a majority in the 1993 elections.

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