AN INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT

In early June 1991 a lunch took place at the Observer newspaper with Donald Trelford, the editor, at which I was one of the guests. Its after-effect was an international political row that soured Britain’s relationship with France. I had known Donald for a number of years, particularly during the period when the Observer was owned by Tiny Rowland. Our paths crossed periodically in a number of ways, socially and otherwise. When we met we would discuss general topics of the day, including his own remarkable entente with Tiny, who was hard to handle and rather unpredictable in his choice of friends and business associates.

At the time Donald had a television slot on BBC2 in which he appeared in conversation with political leaders. He was contemplating an interview with Edith Cresson, who had recently been appointed prime minister of France by President Mitterand. En passant Donald asked me whether, in my diverse activities, I had ever met her, faintly hoping I might contribute to his research process. As it happened, I had met her, before there was any talk of her becoming prime minister. Some four years earlier I had interviewed her for my book Elles – the French edition of Women – but had never been able to use the interview as I had missed the deadline for its inclusion. The interview had been in French and remained unseen by anyone, having subsequently lain dormant in one of my files. Donald asked whether he could see it, notwithstanding the fact that it was conducted in French. He would have it translated, he said, and return it to me as soon as he had had the chance to read it.

Three days later an excited Donald came on the telephone. The interview, he reckoned, was sensational, and with my permission he proposed to publish it in a world exclusive as the cover story for the ‘Review’ section of the newspaper the following Sunday. At the same time he would negotiate worldwide syndication rights, for which I would receive half the total benefits in addition to a substantial fee for its UK publication. I said yes without hesitation.

The interview had all the impact Donald anticipated and more. The majority of people were appalled by the ill-considered statements Madame Cresson made about Anglo-Saxon men. She tossed statistics into the air without their having the least basis in fact. In my opinion, she had shown herself to be vain, arrogant and full of her own importance. She kept looking at her watch all the time we were talking, warning me my time was up, but then carrying on with her pontifications regardless. Everything to do with her was studied, and she failed to convince of any sincerity. What was beyond doubt was that she came over as an attractive woman in her prime who was highly intelligent and confident. Her movements and gestures were all part of her repertoire. There was no doubt that without much effort she beguiled Mitterand, who was not at all immune to feminine wiles.

Edith Cresson’s sex appeal was of the sort that men would fall for then try to master and subdue. I felt it as I was talking to her. Her delusions of superiority stirred one’s animal instincts sexually, though I would have been far too embarrassed to admit it. In different circumstances I could see myself falling prey to this egocentric woman were it not for her contrived haughtiness, which overrode and negated every other consideration. But before analysing the furore that followed the publication of the interview and making a considered judgement, it is essential to quote the passage that triggered off the whole controversy. I asked her why most men preferred the company of men in Anglo-Saxon countries:

Yes, but the majority of these men are homosexuals – perhaps not the majority – but in the USA there are already 25 per cent of them, and in England and Germany it is much the same. You cannot imagine it in the history of France. Traditionally the image of Frenchmen has been heterosexual, an image given to them by men of power, by the kings, etc. Frenchmen are much more interested in women; Anglo-Saxon men are not interested in women, and this is a problem that needs analysis. I don’t know whether it is cultural or biological but there is something there that isn’t working – that’s obvious. Moreover, I remember from strolling about in London, and girls are making the same observation, that men in the streets don’t look at you. When you do this in Paris, the men look at you; a workman or indeed any man looks at passing women. The Anglo-Saxons are not interested in women as women; for a woman arriving in an AngloSaxon country it is astonishing. She says to herself, ‘What is the matter?’ It is a problem of education and I consider it something of a weakness. A man who isn’t interested in women is in some way a little maimed.

The Observer of 16 June summarized the interview under a front-page heading: ‘French PM: One-in-four Englishmen gay’:

Continental people have sex, it was once written: the English have hotwater bottles. As if to prove the point, France’s first woman prime minister, Edith Cresson, has bared her soul in a remarkably candid and controversial interview on the subject of men, sex, power, discrimination – and the supposed amorous failings of the Anglo-Saxon male.
The fall-out was immediate and it went round the world. On Monday morning the Daily Telegraph reported:

A certain froideur has befallen Anglo-French relations after a decidedly undiplomatic attack on British manhood by Mme Edith Cresson, the French prime minister. The fifty-seven-year-old mother of two, whose quick temper and sharp tongue are renowned in Paris, has suggested that the Anglo-Saxon male at best lacks the passion of his Gallic counterpart, and in one in four cases is homosexual.

The remarks were made four years ago to the publisher Naim Attallah, but surfaced in yesterday’s Observer to ripple what might be left of any Entente Cordiale . . .

Not since one of Mme Cresson’s predecesors, M. Jacques Chirac, dismissed Mrs Thatcher’s remarks as couillons during a European summit has a French prime minister been quite so disparaging about the British. But as diplomatic rows go it was perhaps somewhat short of the lamb wars or a single European currency. ‘I don’t think we have a position on this one,’ the Foreign Office confessed yesterday.

The Telegraph also included a few ill-informed assumptions of its own, stating that the book Women had ‘featured conversations with more than 150 unsuspecting women, frequently over lunch, and containing remarks they would never have made had they known they were on record’. These women had been furious, alleged the Telegraph, ‘but none more so that Mme Cresson, who was apparently too boring to make the book’. The next day the Telegraph printed an unequivocal apology:

Mr Naim Attallah assures us, and we entirely accept, that all the 289 women he interviewed for his bestselling book Women were aware that their remarks were being tape-recorded for inclusion in his book.

Therefore the statement in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph that they were ‘unsupecting’ and said things they would not have said if they had known they were on the record is without foundation. We also accept his assurance that, contrary to our statement, none complained to him, orally or in writing.

In particular the interview with Mme Edith Cresson, now the French prime minister, was conducted only for the French, not the British, edition and did not appear in the French edition because of the publisher’s schedule. Therefore our statement that she was ‘too boring to make the book’ is unfounded. We apologize sincerely to Mr Attallah for the misrepresentations in our news story and for those reflected in our leading article.

When I met Max Hastings, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, at a Downing Street reception, he greeted me with the words, ‘You are a gentleman. I shall be writing to you a personal letter of appreciation.’ And he did.

For Edith Cresson the whole affaire came to the fore as another diplomatic contretemps was brewing over the campaign of remarks she had been making against the Japanese from the moment she became prime minister a month earlier. These were aimed at Japan’s export policies, despite the fact that one of France’s great success stories in recent years had been its luxury-goods export trade to Japan. Among her accusations were that Japan wanted to conquer the world, and had already taken over the world’s photographic industry, forced its own people to pay high prices at home to finance cheap exports and sealed off the domestic market to foreign competition. According to her, the Japanese were too busy plotting against the American and European economies to be able to sleep at night. They were ‘ants . . . little yellow men who sit up all night thinking how to screw us’. Japan was the ‘aggressor’, she claimed on television, and ‘lived in a universe different from ours, a universe of domination’. In reaction to her pronouncements, far-right groups in Japan were already organizing protests outside the French embassy in Tokyo, but she was showing no sign of backing down. Later in July, on a visit to America, she gave an interview on the ABC network repeating that the Japanese ‘work like ants, live in little flats and take two hours to commute to work’. On 14 July, Bastille Day, the demonstrators in Tokyo guillotined her in effigy.

Her immediate reaction to the publication of the interview was to say she had no recollection of ever meeting me, let alone of being interviewed. An aide denied, moreover, that she had ever made the ‘gay’ remark. This inflamed the situation even further. When the media sought my reaction to the denial, I was able to produce the evidence by exhibiting the tape. The French authorities, having been given ‘not only the date – Wednesday, 27 September 1987 – not only the place – at her then office in the Boulevard St Germain – but also the time of the interview – 11.30 a.m., sought to establish that she had been misrepresented, allegations which did not survive the briefest study of the tape transcript’, as John Sweeney wrote for the Observer from Paris on 23 June. He gave a graphic description of their official disgust:

As slowly and stately as Montgolfier’s gondola, the left eyebrow laboured heavenwards: ‘Disgusting.’ The right eyebrow the same. ‘Evil. Stupide.’ His hair, cut en brosse, bristled with distaste. His stomach, an overwrought shrine to the magnificence of French cuisine, shuddered in pain like a Sumo wrestler with tummy ache.

The eyebrows climbed ever more upwards and now the lips were brought into play, squeezing together until opening to create a small explosion of compressed air, exactly mimicking the Paris Métro hiss. ‘We would never do a thing like this.’

He paused to work the gondola eyebrows, sumo tummy and Métro door some more. ‘This rubbish. Trash. Garbage. It is always the English that play these games. Always Great Britain.’ He pronounced ‘Great Britain’ as if it were not a country but a particularly nasty form of sheep apoplexy. Jean-Philippe Atger is the French Bernard Ingham, the man charged with handling press relations for the new French prime minister, Madame Edith Cresson.

With delicate disdain, he held a photocopy of a Sun story between finger and thumb; its headline, slotted on page three to the right of a pair of breasts, screamed: BRITS BLAST POOFTER JIBE FROM MRS FROG. It was all the Observer’s fault.

Last week Atger was breathing garlicky bunkum and balderdash at your hapless reporter after our paper brought Anglo-French relations to a new low by disclosing that ‘MRS FROG’, er, Mme Cresson, believes that one in four Englishmen is gay and, more, they lack all interest in women.

Madame Cresson’s fall-back position had subsequently become that the Observer story was not in the tradition of le fair play. ‘If this conversation took place,’ she told the listeners to a French radio programme, ‘I was not only not prime minister, I was not even in the government.’ She claimed she did not remember meeting me, but, ‘Maybe I had a conversation with an English journalist because I had a lot of conversations with English journalists. All I know is that if the conversation took place, and if he found the things I said interesting, he would no doubt have included them in his book. I have nothing to add to this interview that has been taken out of a drawer.’ When pressed about her allegation that a quarter of Englishmen were homosexual, she simply stirred the pot again, saying, ‘It’s difficult to produce a statistic.’ The inference was that she remained unrepentent.

The tabloids, with the Sun in the vanguard, certainly spotted in the story a green light to let fly with a few blasts of chauvinism. Under the headline ‘Britanny Fairies’ the Sun said:

Edith Cresson, France’s first woman PM, claims one in four Englishmen is homosexual. That’s a bit rich coming from the leader of a nation where most men carry handbags and kiss each other in public. They don’t call Paris Gay Paree for nothing, you know.

Julie Burchill in the Mail on Sunday, sharpening up her gift for delivering a provocative insult, asked how it was that, if France was so straight, it had an ‘AIDS rate higher than in most African countries and higher than any Western country apart from the USA (which is really a Third World country anyway)?’ She found Mme Cresson’s claim that British men did not look at women in the street ‘incredible’.

Because back here in dear old Blighty, the problem that personable women have to face is not too little male attention but too much. . . . men who not only look at you in passing but indeed look at you as if they were trying to pick you out of an identity parade of suspects who might have done in their dear old mother . . .

In fact how very pleasant to be as plain and past it as Mme Cresson – an honorary man, no less! And if it is true, as she claims, that Frenchmen still ogle her – well, is it worse for a quarter of men to be homosexuals, or for the majority to be shameless, perverted gerontophiles?

Mr David Jones of Bolton, Greater Manchester, suggested in a letter to the Observer that for Mme Cresson’s next state visit to Britain he could envisage a ‘guard of honour of scaffolders at Heathrow, ready to receive the premier by ceremoniously intoning, “Cor, I bet she does the business.”’

Marjorie Proops, in her column in the Daily Mirror, turned the theme into a case for exhortation:
Maybe it’s not a bad idea to keep your heads up, lads, and take a keener and closer look at the passing talent. Somehow we’ve got to go on breeding good, strong, silent Britons – and it can’t be done without your cooperation.

There was also the inevitable facetious question raised in the House of Commons, which brought a welcome interruption to the business of serious politics and reduced the chamber to hilarity. The Conservative MP Tony Marlow said that, in view of Mrs Cresson having ‘sought to insult the virility of the British male because the last time she was in London she did not get enough admiring glances’, he wished to put down a motion saying: ‘This House does not fancy elderly Frenchwomen’ – but was ruled out of order by the Speaker.

With Mme Cresson’s remarks rebounding in various directions on other matters besides these, it began to seem to many commentators that Mitterand’s judgement in appointing her as prime minister might soon be seriously called into question. Julian Nandy in the Independent on 20 July commented on how her predecessor, Michel Rocard, had been criticized for his reluctance to speak out on current issues during his three years in office, but there had been no such problem for Edith Cresson in the two months she had been in the job.

She talks, what she says gets into print and, more often than not, it boomerangs. It has become known as parler cru, or talking raw. In the meantime her popularity rating has zigzagged, while President François Mitterand – who appointed her – has publicly backed her bluntness.

Last week, however, her popularity, after falling 16 per cent in seven weeks, began to rise. In the weekly L’Express a poll showed that she had picked up seven points . . . The poll was published just as Mrs Cresson made unfashionably frank comments on illegal immigrants, stressing that laws requiring their expulsion should be applied more strictly.

An assessment by Robert Cottrell in the Independent on Sunday of 21 July put more detail on the situation: But to question Mrs Cresson’s wisdom is, in effect, to question that of Mr Mitterand. He put her there. So had he since come to think, as he was asked during his annual 14 July television interview, that this was une fausse bonne idée?

Mr Miterrand insisted not. ‘After fifteen years of technocratic language,’ he said, ‘I find it healthy to have a prime minister who speaks clearly.’ The people of France, he said, ‘have a living language. Mrs Cresson has a living language . . . It is true that Mrs Cresson upsets people. Well, some people are against her. I am for her. She is rather charming, don’t you think?’

Since you cannot say ‘No’ to the president of France on live television, the question was left hanging. Edith Cresson failed to serve a full year as prime minister, though this gave her time to plumb new depths of unpopularity before she resigned after a poor showing by the Socialists in the elections. I have sometimes since wondered whether, in some indirect way, I contributed to her demise as prime minister. The aftermath of the interview showed her, I thought, in a silly light and made it clear she was quite incapable of reining in her loose tongue. There were even persistent rumours that she had formerly been Mitterand’s mistress, leading her to feel the presidential backing she received was his way of appreciating the favours she had bestowed on him over the years; and, this being so, that her vulnerability was well protected.

Under Mitterand’s patronage, she went on to be the European Commissioner for Education, Research and Sciences in Brussels. One of her first actions was to appoint her own dental surgeon, René Berthelot, as her personal adviser on HIV/AIDS, a subject of which he knew little. After two years – though eighty-five thousand pounds the richer – Berthelot had produced a total of twenty-four pages of notes later deemed to be unqualified and grossly deficient. Another project she generated, known as the Leonardo da Vinci Vocational Training Scheme, which she claimed was the bestadministered programme in Brussels, became implicated in massive fraud, and the company she had chosen to run it was stripped of its five-hundredmillion-pound contract. Investigations uncovered a whole nest of falsified contracts, forged handwriting and embezzled funds, leading to the resignation of the entire Santer Commission in 1999. Allegations that she had personally gained from any wrongdoing remained unproven, though the commission inquiry said she had ‘failed to act in response to known, serious and continuing irregularities over several years’. Though the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice recommended that she be stripped of half her forty-seven-thousand-euro pension, she was allowed to escape the imposition of any financial penalty. ‘Maybe I was a little careless,’ was the extent of her public admission.

This was extracted from my book ” Fulfilment & Betrayal ‘‘, which is still available.

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