The Fall of Edith Cresson

April 04, 1992

When President Bush's popularity sagged, White House chief of staff John Sununu had to go. That failed to distract anyone who disliked the president. What bothered them was the recession, not Mr. Sununu's brusque manner. Still, almost any president would have done the same thing. In fact, the president of France, Francois Mitterrand, just did.

Since the local elections last month repudiated the ruling Socialists, allowing them a scant 18.3 percent of the vote, all France was waiting for him to replace Prime Minister Edith Cresson. Now he has. It won't matter. Unemployment is at 9.9 percent. When it goes down, Mr. Mitterrand's subterranean standing will start back up; not till then.

In the French system, the premier is an appointee of the elected president, not the leader of a parliamentary system. Mr. Mitterrand made Mrs. Cresson the first woman premier in French history last May. It was just as easy to make her an ex-premier. Her appointment was meant to shock the party into modernity and regain its support. Instead, her tart tongue, which had been so charming as a mere cabinet minister, became nationally embarrassing. More important, the economy did not revive and jobs did not bloom.

Not that she gave up. Mrs. Cresson went out of high office as she went in, fighting. Her resignation letter, in which she complained of not having had the expected new team or party support, was leaked. She wanted to sacrifice the cabinet to save her own seat, as Mr. Mitterrand determined to sack her to save his. No go.

Now the French president is betting on Pierre Beregovoy, long-time finance minister who brought down inflation with the help of unemployment. He is an old guard Socialist faithful to Mr. Mitterrand. Good luck to him. Mrs. Cresson is, after 323 days, a former premier, Her popularity will rebound. She can tell witty indiscretions to the press (if it bothers to ask) and people will love it. Her views of English male sexuality, for instance, will rate a chuckle and not an indignant gasp.

But, of course, this makes no difference. The French president himself is unpopular. He serves a term of seven years. Mr. Mitterrand's second term lasts until 1995. He has chucked out his old Socialist baggage and he can fire all the premiers he likes. If unemployment remains at 9.9 percent, the Gaullists of the right will triumph in parliamentary elections next year. Then Mr. Mitterrand will grit his teeth and appoint one of them premier.

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