Edith Cresson smiles as she is reminded of a story when she was France's minister of agriculture and pelted with tomatoes during a farmers' strike. "It was worse," she laughs. "I had to be rescued by a helicopter."
Cresson refused to turn and run. "I was fond of them and that was making them mad. They couldn't imagine that a woman could be a minister of agriculture first, and a woman being a socialist was making matters worse. And that I was not afraid. I saw it made them mad and so then I realized that I couldn't turn back. I had to face it."
Now she is facing different problems as minister of external trade and tourism in the third cabinet of Franc,ois Mitterrand. The first woman to hold such high-level cabinet posts in France, she is just as feisty and outspoken as she was on her old turf.
Cresson's visit here coincides with Bloomingdale's salute to France, which opened in New York last Tuesday and in Washington last night. At a stop at the French Embassy, she dismissed criticism at home of government support for the Bloomingdale's promotion: The French have given Bloomingdale's about $375,000 at a time when the French economy is weak.
"Some are surprised that the minister of foreign trade would beg the promotion of that shop. But it is important. Marvin Traub chairman of Bloomingdale's is a genius for finding talent, not only merchandise but style of living." Besides, she adds, the money is not a lot compared to other things. "That is the interesting thing with trade. You don't need a lot of money. You need to place it well. I say the French are often penny wise and pound fools. When you want to receive you have to give. It is a great lesson." In fact, the French government contribution to Bloomingdale's was made in return for a commitment by Bloomingdale's to buy French goods for the promotion.
Clearly, Cresson, 49, is more comfortable in her new post. "Since I left agriculture everyone seems intelligent, charming, full of ideas and not complaining. And not always asking for money." She is touring several U.S. cities with more than 200 French business leaders. "They all are nice and say things like 'thank you'--I never heard that before."
She also dresses differently now. "I didn't dare dress up as minister of agriculture. I had always very closed neckline things, everything was plain; I didn't have any taste to dress, I was so tired. I arrived in the morning at the office and learned of a new manifestation strike . I fought like hell because farmers earn more money than ever before. And this is another thing they couldn't admit."
Dressing is easy when Dior lends you things, she admits. She knows Nancy Reagan would be criticized for such a thing but says she is not. And it's "good publicity," she says, when she touts the clothes of less known talent; she is wearing a Torrente blue herringbone blazer outfit. She believes that women designers such as Torrente have an advantage over men designers, "who often don't like women, I may say. Men design for women as they design a car. It will have perfect lines, but not something more."
As the only woman in the ministers' council, which meets with the president every Wednesday, she feels no constraint. They address each other by their first names and the familiar "tu," she says. Even Franc,ois Mitterrand, when she sees him in private. She has known him since 1965 when he was the socialist candidate in a campaign for a new constitution. She became his secretary.
"He has made a great effort toward women. He is 66 and it was not in his upbringing. He thinks, like a lot of French people, that it is nice to have women around you." But did she ever encourage him on feminist issues? "Never, never," she shouts with a laugh. "You can speak about a woman to him as beautiful and charming but never in the political sense. He hates it and the feminist thing."
While she appears bold and confident, Cresson makes a wish on the squirrel that darts on the lawn off the patio of the French Embassy. She is wearing a carved garnet ring "for luck." It was designed and given her by her "adopted mother," as she calls her, "a good friend but older who advised me when I was younger." She adds, "I had my own mother who was a very practical mother and a bit narrow-minded, and this woman was a genius, very brilliant, very beautiful, very elegant. She was a woman of style, education, very advanced for her period and also a woman of extraordinary taste who made clothes for herself and for me."
Cresson's tour, which started in New York, concludes in Houston, a city she feels she knows from her fascination with the series "Dallas," which she watches religiously every Saturday night. She loved going to foreign meetings as agriculture minister, something she does less frequently now. "I could get the advance story of 'Dallas' from countries which had the series before us. I always asked them what happened."
"It is so amusing and so nasty, I like it very much," she said. And when she gets back to France the television show "Dynasty" will have begun. "I hear it is worse. I can't wait."