Edith Cresson was born January 27, 1934, in a fashionable Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Her father was a senior civil servant. Raised by a British nanny, she became fluent in the English language. Cresson attended the School of Advanced Commercial Studies, earning a degree in business and later a doctorate in demography.
A successful businesswoman, she added a second career in politics when she met François Mitterrand in 1965. For the next 26 years the future president helped Cresson advance through the ranks of what is now the French Socialist Party, calling her "my little soldier."
After Mitterrand became president in 1981, Cresson served first as minister of agriculture (1981-1983), then as minister of external trade and tourism (1983-1984), as minister of industrial restructuring and external trade (1984-1986), and finally minister of foreign affairs (1988-1990). She resigned from the government on October 3, 1990, to work as a consultant on international development. Meanwhile she was three times elected a deputy to the National Assembly from the Vienne province (1981, 1986, 1988).
Then in May 1991, President Mitterrand asked Cresson to form a new government. Some experts believe Mitterand had grown dissatisfied with the failures of the government of Michel Rocard to gain majorities in the National Assembly. Others believe the French president foresaw major international trade issues looming as the trans-European Union came into existence, and sought Cresson's expertise in trade affairs.
As prime minister, the combative Cresson planned to strengthen France's industrial power and to "protect" French and European trade from the inroads of Japanese and American products. In assembling her new cabinet of 29 members she chose a number of holdovers from the government of her predecessor. One, Pierre Brgovoy, was named to head a new superministry combining economic, trade, industrial, and technology affairs. His appointment served to restore trust in the French leadership in financial markets. She also appointed five women, three to posts in labor, development, and youth and sports.
When her appointment to prime minister drew misogynist remarks from some politicians of France's center and right parties, Cresson said, "Men are not in any sense irreplaceable except in one's private life." Nevertheless, more fair-minded criticism about her ability to command majorities in the National Assembly persisted.
The Cresson government moved aggressively to free what had become a stagnant economy, and on contentious domestic issues, frequently centered around immigrants. Quoted making strident and antagonistic comments about the Japanese "strategy of conquest," Cresson was greatly concerned over what she was convinced to be Japan's major threat to European trade and commonwealth. Diplomatically, her outspokenness was creating unease in international circles. Within four months of becoming president, the Cresson government had fallen precipitously in popularity. Subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on her gender continued, including a popular daytime television show featuring two puppet characters, one a sexy and servile female broadly seen as a Cresson parody. In April 1992, Cresson resigned. Since then she has served as Commissioner for Science, Research and Development to the European Commission.
Cresson's husband, Jacques, a retired executive of Peugeot, the French automobile and appliance company, remained supportive of his wife, and their relationship has been likened to that of Margaret Thatcher and her husband. Cresson has been compared to the British prime minister for her bluntness, energy, and stubbornness. They have two daughters.
The appointment and career of Cresson was covered in the Washington Post (May 16 and May 18, 1991). See also "An Iron Lady Across the Channel?" Business Week (May 27, 1991) and "The Battle for Europe," Business Week (June 3, 1991). □