The Cohabitee

Edith Cresson: “She’s not really corrupt”

The career of ex-Prime Minister and ex-European Commissioner Cresson says a lot about the state of French politics and its influence in Europe.

Interviewed recently by Le Monde, Edith Cresson was asked what she got from being prime minister of France for just ten months in 1991 to 1992. "Nothing... It wasn't worth it," she said. Her subsequent career as a European Comissioner showed that wasn’t a mistake she was going to make twice.

The man who got her both jobs was François Mitterrand. French prime ministers are not elected directly but appointed by the president to manage the National Assembly. This balance is called “cohabitation” though the relationship can be rocky when president and prime minister come of different parties. The relationship between Mitterrand and Cresson brought a whole new meaning to the word.

More than most, Mitterrand and Cresson were well suited to cohabit. Though not conventionally beautiful (if anything, conventionally ugly), she had enjoyed a sexual relationship with Mitterrand since 1965 when she had assisted with his first presidential campaign. Thanks to France’s stringent privacy laws, the relationship was never publicised at home. 

After securing the presidency in 1981, Mitterrand named her successively Minister of Agriculture, Foreign Trade, Industry, and European Affairs. While maintaining her cabinet position, he "parachuted" Cresson into the provincial city of Châtellerault to became its mayor in 1983. Eight years later, Mitterrand set her up in the sumptuous Hotel Matignon, the prime minister’s official residence.

It didn’t work out. She couldn’t stem France’s rising unemployment which reached over a million, and a series of aggressive public statements about the “les Anglos”, the Japanese and gays suggested she was little more than an aggressive but over-promoted local hack who’d been sleeping with the boss.

Her popularity ratings crashed (she became known as “Madame 19%”) and, with his own political position in jeopardy, Mitterrand dumped her. She wasn’t a woman to go quietly. Her widely publicised letter of resignation complained that she had not been allowed to "fully complete" her mission and she blamed her dismissal on “a macho plot”.

Mitterrand, the old smoothie, adroitly shut her up and got her out of town by naming Cresson as one of France's two (now reduced to one) delegates to the European Commission in Brussels. She demanded a Commission Vice-Presidency as the only position befitting her rank. Commission President Jacques Santer declined, palming her off with Research, Education and Training, the Siberia of Commission portfolios.

She soon turned on the heat. Arrogant and abrasive, she needled colleagues by showing up unprepared and using Commission meetings to catch up with personal correspondence. More serious was the criticism she received for the hands-off way she administered her budget and worked with contractors. 

European Union investigators looking into "serious irregularities and/or fraud" during Cresson’s period as Commissioner focused on the case of Forma in Quarto, a Brussels-based printing firm. Not only were tender specs altered to suit Forma in Quarto but, according to the official report, “the company was always invited to quote last and always managed to tender prices slightly lower than the last estimate”. No surprise then that the firm won bulk printing contracts worth three million euros. Forma in Quarto has only three employees.

Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, a member of the European Parliament's Budget Control Committee, summed up Cresson with withering accuracy: "She showed herself to be, truly and honestly, a French-bred local politician.”

Just how local became clear when she appointed a highly paid "scientific visitor" to "coordinate research on the AIDS". Amongst the nominated candidates presented to her was the 1992 Nobel Prize Winner for Physics, Georges Charpak. Instead Cresson chose René Berthelot, her personal dentist. 

When the appointment became public knowledge, there was uproar in the European Parliament. EU investigators then established that the M. Berthelot’s notes, supplied to them by Cresson to justify his work between October 1995 and March 1997, had been forged a year later after the scandal had broken. They advised the EU commission that Cresson "should have been aware of the reality of these documents which were intended as a cover up”. Since she refused to resign, in March 1999 all the other European Commissioners resigned instead, taking her with them.

Charged with fraud by Belgian magistrates, she fought back. She claimed she was the victim of a right-wing conspiracy “by the Germans”, that her Paris apartment had been burgled, that she was suffering from cancer. More tellingly, she announced that the charges against her were “designed to tarnish the image of France” and wrote to President Chirac demanding “the full protection of the Republic”. Belgium, very much the Mini-Me of France, dropped the charges a year later for “lack of evidence”.

A parallel investigation by the European Commission is still underway. A case against Cresson has been submitted to the European Court of Justice with a view to stripping her of her 40,000 euro annual pension. 

Yet in France, it’s as if nothing had happened. In 2004 Cresson was selected to sit on a prestigious high-level government panel tasked with shaping "the future of Europe" and examining Europe's nascent constitution. More recently, she chaired a session of the Paris-based Global Forum on Sustainable Development. The event's patrons included President Jacques Chirac. 

The French are forgiving. "She is incredibly maladroit. She attracts hostility and enemies everywhere she goes”, says French political commentator Alain Duhamel, "but she's not really corrupt.”


Politically Unstable: With the title Président du Conseil de Ministres, France has had over 150 prime ministers since 1815 (compared with 52 in the UK). Politically France has never been particularly stable but then, like Cresson, neither were many of its prime ministers. 

Charles Floquet. 1888-1889. Along with 510 other politicians received share of 23 million francs in bribes during Panama Canal scandal. Exposed, forced to resign from parliament after public outcry. Re-elected a year later. 

Joseph-Marie-Auguste Caillaux. 1911-1912. Pacifist, resigned when his wife shot and killed the editor of Le Figaro newspaper. Arrested for treason during First World War, banished for ten years, yet managed to serve in governments during the 1920s. 

Pierre Laval. 1931-1932, 1932, 1935-1936, 1942-1944. Prominent in 1930s governments, high -evel Nazi collaborator during Second World War, supervised persecution of French Jews, fled with retreating Germans, returned by US army and shot. 

Georges Bidault. 1946, 1949-1950, 1950, 1958. Convinced French colonialist. Quote: "Ho Chi Minh is about to capitulate. We are going to beat him." Beaten by Ho Chi Minh, supported de Gaulle’s return to power. Fell out with de Gaulle and, as head of terrorist l’Organisation de l'armée secrète (O.A.S., Secret Army Organisation), spent the early 60s trying to kill him. Amnestied 1968. 

Pierre Bérégovoy. 1992-1993. Replaced Cresson as Prime Minister. Deeply implicated in President Mitterrand’s widescale bugging of opponents, apparently shot himself beside a canal towpath. He left no note and his personal diary, known to have existed, was not found.

In The Teeth Of The Evidence: A long-time friend of Cresson’s, dentist René Berthelot had no background in the HIV sciences. During his two-year employment, which cost European taxpayer €150,000, he submitted only twenty-four pages of notes. His work was officially described by Brussels investigators as “infantile”. His travel expenses for “field trips”, on examination, turned out to be mostly to his home town, Châtellerault. Cresson initially denied any knowledge of Berthelot’s appointment. Unusual, since she was not only Mayor of Châtellerault but, on his arrival in Brussels, Berthelot had promptly moved into her flat.


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