Cresson is renowned for her abrasiveness


Ms Edith Cresson, the European Commissioner for Science and Research, has responded in her customary abrasive manner to demands that she step down. Millions of euros from the Leonardo EU youth training programme which she administers are alleged to have gone missing.

She has also been reproached for naming her personal hometown dentist, Mr Rene Berthelot, to a high-paying job as a special adviser on AIDS to the Commission.

The French public grew accustomed to Ms Cresson's blunt - some said offensive - statements when she was France's most unpopular ever prime minister from 1991 to 1992. Her best remembered bons mots were her assertions that "one Englishman in four is a homosexual" and that "the Japanese live like ants . . . [whereas the French] want to live like human beings".

Yesterday, Ms Cresson turned her fury on the Germans, perhaps an unwise tactic while Germany holds the EU presidency. "There is a very, very, very vast campaign orchestrated by the German media - and especially, I must say, German public television," she told the French news network LCI in trying to explain her present difficulties.

"German television has played a role in this affair, influencing German public opinion and German parliamentarians, and that has spilled over into the Netherlands and Belgium in a way that is very unpleasant," she said. She claimed right-wing politicians were trying to undermine her and the Spanish Commmissioner Mr Manuel Marin, a fellow socialist.

In Mrs Cresson's conspiracy theory, German resentment at Bonn's huge contribution to the EU budget lies behind the smear campaign. The Germans see their money being distributed to poorer, southern European countries. "There is also the Common Agricultural Policy, and there France is in the front line," she added. "France draws large subsidies from the CAP, which Germany has said it wants to reform during its current presidency."

Ms Cresson (64) is from the older generation of French socialists associated with the late president Francois Mitterrand. Because Mr Mitterrand's 14 years in office were marred by so many financial scandals, the Prime Minister, Mr Lionel Jospin, has distanced himself from the Mitterrand era and did not include any of its elephants in his cabinet.

Ms Cresson met Mr Mitterrand when she worked on his 1965 presidential campaign. She joined the Socialist Party in 1971 and was first elected to the European Parliament eight years later.

During her brief premiership, she angered civil servants with what they saw as her propensity for meddling politically in economic affairs. French feminists came to her defence when political satirists implied that she owed her position to a close personal relationship with President Mitterrand.