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The French Have a (Wrong) Word for It

June 23, 1991

A lot of countries have problems with the Japanese. They can be infuriatingly difficult negotiators. But differences over trade policy need to be discussed intelligently, not the way France's new prime minister likes to talk about these issues. Her way is to talk down to the Japanese. And that's not going to get anyone anywhere.

"Japan is another universe, which wants to conquer," Prime Minister Edith Cresson said recently. "That's the way they are." The Japanese market is "hermetically sealed," and the Japanese stay up nights trying to think of ways "to screw the West," she said. According to reports in the Japanese media, she has described the Japanese as "yellow dwarfs."

Before she became prime minster, in an interview with The Times in 1989, Cresson referred to the Japanese as being "just like ants, eating you up" and went on to say: "You just don't notice it. You don't feel it. You don't see it."

That kind of language from a leading Western "diplomat" is unfortunate and worrisome not simply because of its deleterious effects on French-Japanese relations but because of what it might suggest about the policies and attitudes of the emerging European Community. The EC's worst critics fear the erection of a protectionist wall to keep foreigners out. The Japanese one year, they say; perhaps the Americans the next.

To its credit, an unhappy Tokyo has tried to downplay the flap, at least internationally. After a meeting with Cresson, a Japanese parliamentary delegation emerged in a conciliatory mode. The delegation chief said Cresson's words "had not been meant to criticize the Japanese people" but rather were directed at "big Japanese groups"--whatever that means.

The prime minister says she's deeply concerned about Europe's ability to compete effectively with Japanese interests. That's a legitimate worry, but unlike former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who embraced Japanese industry and thus helped fuel her country's economic comeback, Cresson emphasizes rank protectionism against Japan. That idea appeals to some German circles. Might other EC members jump on the protectionist bandwagon? All this comes as Tokyo is attempting to craft a joint declaration with the European Community to strengthen relations. The timing is terrible.

Cresson's disparaging remarks have triggered an uncharacteristic public show of anger in Japan. Security has been increased around the French Embassy, where rightist groups have staged demonstrations. Earlier this month, a window in a Peugeot showroom in a fashionable Tokyo neighborhood was scrawled with graffiti, a form of vandalism rare in Japan. "Don't take Japanese people for fools," it read. Prime Minister Cresson could set the record straight by making a public apology.

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