PARIS — During her first two months in office, no one has accused French Prime Minister Edith Cresson of pulling her punches.
After three years of general anesthesia under careful predecessor Michel Rocard, Cresson has taken her scalpel to the Japanese (causing her to be burned in effigy in Tokyo), French male sexism and, by defending her remarks in a resurrected four-year-old interview, the sexual proclivities of Anglo-Saxon males.
In his annual Bastille Day interview this year, President Francois Mitterrand was forced to fend off a storm of hostile questions about his prime minister's fearlessly sharp tongue.
"She stirs things up, but I'm for it," Mitterrand said.
Now, France's first woman prime minister has challenged the creators of one of her country's most popular television shows, the satirical evening "Bebette" puppet show, for what she says is an unfair and sexist characterization of her as a fawning and servile leopard named "Amabotte" (literally "at my boot" or "heel!").
Mitterrand comes in for his own ridicule on "Bebette" as the conniving frog named "Dieu," or God. Rocard is a crow. Communist leader Georges Marchais is a very unflattering pig right out of George Orwell's "Animal Farm." But Cresson says her depiction on the puppet show is "very damaging, grotesque, brainless--a synthesis of all the stereotypes about women. . . . It goes beyond the limit."
Her counterattack has sparked a vigorous debate about the limits of freedom of speech on public airwaves. Coupled with reactions to an uncompromising interview she granted this week to the American ABC network, Cresson has rival French politicians and even some of her Socialist Party colleagues frothing at the mouth in rage over what they claim are remarks unbefitting the office of prime minister.
In the interview with ABC's "PrimeTime Live" aired last week, Cresson defended previous controversial remarks and even added a few more digs.
Regarding the Japanese, Cresson accused them of leading work-dominated "ant-like" existences unacceptable to European ideas of civilization and the proper use of leisure time.
"We don't want to live like that. I mean, in small flats, with two hours to go to do your job. . . . We want to keep our social security, our holidays, and we want to live like human beings in the way we've always lived."
Homosexuality, she told interviewer Chris Wallace, "seems strange to me. It's different and marginal. It exists more in the Anglo-Saxon tradition than the Latin one."
Her latest comments on the Japanese were reminiscent of the remarks she made in a 1989 interview with The Times. Cresson, at that time France's minister for European affairs, referred to the Japanese as being "just like ants, eating you up," and went on: "You just don't notice it. You don't feel it. You don't see it."
The latest controversial interview caused Michel Vauzelle, the Socialist chairman of the French Senate's foreign relations committee, to call for a little more decorum from his prime minister.
"It's more respectful to preserve a little dignity in public statements," Vauzelle said. "The public doesn't want vulgarity. That's my opinion, but maybe I'm old hat."
Opposition party members were less forgiving, especially on Cresson's characterization of the Japanese work habits as "ant-like."
The Japanese, said Eric Raoult, a Gaullist opposition deputy in the French Parliament, "are more accustomed to the velvety language of the geishas than they are the vulgar slang of fishwives."
French public reaction to Cresson has been largely negative. After a brief two-week state of grace following her appointment in May, her public approval ratings in opinion polls have dipped to the lowest ever for a French prime minister. The negative response to Cresson has also contributed to a less severe drop in public approval for Mitterrand.
For their part, the creators of the nightly "Bebette" show say they will not back off in their satirical attacks on Cresson or any other French politician.
"The nature of our show is insulting and satirical," "Bebette" producer Stephane Collaro said last week. "We are always on the border of going 'beyond the limit.' Sometimes we cross it. But doesn't Madame Cresson 'go beyond the limit' when she expounds on the sexuality of the English or the living habits of the Japanese?"
Collaro said he doesn't feel threatened by Cresson's criticism of his show but said he is disappointed by her thin skin. Mitterrand, for example, has said he sometimes watches "Bebette" and is amused by it.
"Madame Cresson can't stand being mocked," Collaro said. "That's sad because it shows a bad character trait."
However, critics of the puppet show, which airs just before the news on the main French private television network, TF1, claim that it often displays sexist tendencies, including a nightly appearance by big-bosomed women dressed in revealing, tight-fitting bunny costumes. Feminists object to the flirty, fluff-brained way Cresson is depicted.
Collaro insists that is not because of pressure from Cresson or her supporters, but he and co-producers Jean Roucas and Jean Amadou plan to change the name and image of the Cresson character when the show is revived in the fall, after the annual summer vacation.
He said the spotted puppet will remain the same, but her name will change from Amabotte to Didi-Lateigne, a name that can be literally translated as "Didi the Moth" but which in slang takes on the connotation of "Didi the Shrew."
"We plan to make her meaner, more authoritarian, less tolerant--a specialist in catastrophic phrases," Collaro chuckled during an interview in his Boulogne home just outside Paris. "We will make her a very authoritarian person who terrorizes the world.
"But each time she sees the president (the green puppet frog "God"), she instantly becomes charming. Everyone will know about her true personality but him."