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Up the greasy pole again

Anne Corbett and Frances Rafferty on ex-prime minister Edith Cresson's move into Europe.

When Edith Cresson takes over as the European Union's commissioner for research, education, training and youth in January, it is expected that she will be hoping for a less bloody experience than her short-lived premiership in France where she became famous for such gaffes as describing the Japanese as ants who want to take over the world and dwelling on the homosexual tendencies of British men.

Mme Cresson's descent from huge popularity to being deeply loathed was short and brutal, lasting less than a year after she became the republic's first female prime minister. But she still retains her reputation as a doughty fighter and expects to make her mark in Brussels once she gets her elegant feet under the table in the vast sixth-floor office currently occupied by Professor Antonio Ruberti.

Mme Cresson brings to the job both political and industrial experience. She already has inside knowledge of European institutions, having been French minister for European Affairs from 1988 to 1990, when she resigned in protest against lack of resources. She was also an MEP between 1979 and 1981. As prime minister, she launched a major effort to get vocational training taken more seriously and declining apprenticeships renovated - an approach taken up by the present government. She also chairs an organisation called Sisie (Services, industrie, strategie international et environnement), a continuation of her work as managing director of part of the Schneider group (Schneider Industries Service International).

Thanks to the efforts of Professor Ruberti, she takes up her Brussels job with much hard labour already out of the way. The professor invented and launched the EU education programmes Socrates and Leonardo, and new youth action schemes are also under way. But she also has ideas of her own.

Edith Cresson has a wealthy, conformist background. She attended a series of private Catholic schools, including one during the war where the pupils had to sing songs in honour of Marechal Petain. She went on to commercial training in what she describes as an upmarket secretarial college. After a schoolfriend persuaded her to work for the young Francois Mitterrand, she threw herself into Socialist party politics. Her past relationship with Mitterrand has led to plenty of speculation. The French equivalent of Spitting Image, TFI's Bebete Show, portrayed her as "Amabotte the panther", the devoted favourite of "Mitterrand the frog".

Journalist Elisabeth Schemla's book, Edith Cresson: The Trapped Woman, said hostility and jealousy from male politicians contributed to Cresson's downfall and the stories that she had once been the president's mistress could be put down to sexist spite,with many attacks coming from her own side.

Mitterrand helped her start her journey up the greasy pole when he had her made mayor of Chatellerault in 1977. After becoming an MEP she was brought into his government as the minister of agriculture. She was not a success; the peasants did not like her style. She had better luck in her posts as minister of Commerce and Tourism, Redeployment and External Trade and European Affairs.

The prime ministerial period was a disaster, not so much for the policies but for her abrupt and tactless style which sent shivers down the spine of France's conventional intellectual political elite. The French economic weekly Le Nouvel Economist said: "The Cresson negotiate."

Mme Cresson's long-standing collaborator, the 74-year-old businessman Abel Farnoux, will accompany her to Brussels. This relationship was another source of controversy during her time as prime minister, with commentators saying Farnoux had too much influence.

However, she can be seen to have worked hard for the policies she believed her country needed: in employment and training, in privatisation, a major strategy for industry and for getting technical and research expertise to the provinces.

Most measures were unpopular when she introduced them and, paradoxically, most have fitted in better with Edouard Balladur's present government.

She does have allies in the most unlikely of places in Brussels, including Leon Brittan with whom she is said to have maintained good relations after first meeting him when she was a minister.

And she will hope to maintain a high profile in the year that France assumes the Brussels presidency - without committing too many gaffes.

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