LA DAME DE FER
Diana Geddes canvasses
French opinions of Mrs Thatcher
Paris FIVE years ago, at the height of Britain's fight over its contribution to the Common Market, the French voted Mrs Thatcher the third most disliked leader in the world. Although marginally more popular than the Ayatollah Khomeini and Colonel Gad- dafi, she was more disliked than Cher- nenko or Fidel Castro.
Today the dislike has been tempered by an envious admiration for Britain's econo- mic recovery and renewed leading role on the world scene, and esteem for the for- midable, if often exasperating, woman who is seen as responsible for both those things. That, of course, is not the same as sym- pathy or affection, but I was surprised by the difficulty I had in finding anyone in France who felt the kind of passionate antipathy for 'Madame Tat-chair' or La Dame de Fer, as she is known here (never Maggie), that has become commonplace in many part of British society.
Some rave about her. 'My admiration for her knows no bounds,' Mme Puck Simonet, the elegant founder of the first French club for professional women and former managing director of the four-star Hotel Royal Monceau, in Paris, says. 'If someone asked me who I would most like to meet in all the world tomorrow, I would say Mrs Thatcher. She fascinates me. I never knew Queen Victoria, of course, but I think she must have been a woman like Mrs Thatcher. She knows what she wants and gets what she wants. The British owe her a lot. She is the one person who will save Britain; indeed she's already half succeeded. She's another Churchill. Is she a real woman? Of course she is. She thinks like a man, but she has kept her feminine characteristics. She may not look like a pin-up, but that's not part of her function. No one asked Churchill to look like Robert Redford, did they?'
Not all the French are so convinced about Mrs Thatcher's femininity. Giscard said he did not like her 'either as a man or a woman'. Mitterrand, who gets on with her much better, says she has 'the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Mon- roe'. Chirac is said to have detested her heartily, partly because she did not seem susceptible to his own liberal charms. But Denis Paudouin, one of Chirac's closest aides for more than ten years, claims this is nonsense.
'Chirac always had a lot of admiration for her iron will, her mastery of her dossiers, her incredible tenacity,' Baudouin says. 'It's true that he sometimes found her a little aggressive and exasperat- ing, particularly when she was insisting on getting her own way on some point at European summits. It was on one such occasion that Chirac is said to have said, "Oh, elle va encore nous casser les couil- les!" or something like that, though he always denied it. The British press made a great fuss about it, but their relations were not at all bad. He always spoke to her as a man, never as a woman, though.'
Mrs Thatcher is reported to have much warmer relations with France's socialist president than with his erstwhile conserva- tive prime minister. 'It is not a friendship, but they have a good working rela- tionship,' one of 'those close to the Presi- dent' (the formula required) said. 'They got off to a good start. Thatcher didn't like Giscard. He treated her with condescen- sion, and she couldn't stand that. She was delighted to see him go. When Mitterrand arrived, she was charming to him, and he, the first socialist president of the Fifth French Republic, was grateful for such a warm welcome. That set the tone for their relations. and Mrs Thatcher is grateful to Mitterrand for having settled the squabble over the British EEC rebate; she constant- 1Y refers to that. They are two terribly different people, but they have a sincere and mutual esteem. They are both ge- nuinely interested in each others' ideas. I think Mitterrand is rather amused watch- ing Thatcher.'
T. hat all sounded rather cosy, but the sting was not far beneath the surface. She's certainly a remarkable woman with many strings to her bow,' those close to the President continued. 'She has the energy, Courage, intelligence, personal authority, and force of character of a true statesman, and in addition she is a woman. There are not many leaders at her level. But she Poses terrible problems for us. She is so Convinced that she is always right that she finds it hard to listen to others. A true dialogue is not always easy; it often becom- es a monologue. Like everyone else who is S.0 . sure of themselves, she can be very !rntating. She is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convince about a point of View other than her own.
'It's not for us to judge her domestic Policies. But on Europe she's almost never 111)ported us in taking the lead in a new initiative. All that Mitterrand has done for the EEC over the past five years since the last French presidency has been in spite of Mrs Thatcher. She has dug in her heels all the way. This next French presidency (which begins in July) promises to be much more complex and - difficult. There's no longer just one problem, but many — monetary union, fiscal harmonisation, so- cial Europe, and Mrs Thatcher is against them all. It would be absurd to say now that Europe would be better off without Britain; but it would be better off with a more pro-European leader in Britain.
The French are ambivalent over Mrs Thatcher's attitude towards Europe. While they are angered by her disruptive stalling tactics, they secretly admire her firm-fisted defence of British interests. Many wish that France could do the same. On the Right, there is a nostalgic longing for a new de Gaulle, with whom Mrs Thatcher is often compared; but not on the Left.
'She is an appalling woman,' Axel Quev- al, the Socialist Party's officer for interna- tional relations, cried with some relish. 'The ordinary French people — those on the Left — don't like her at all, particularly because she reminds them of de Gaulle. We have very bad memories of that period. Mme Thatcher is narrow-minded, blink- ered, nationalistic, authoritarian, and as obstinate as a mule — just like de Gaulle. I don't think she's a great leader at all. She's simply had three pieces of remarkably good luck: North Sea oil; a weak military leadership in Argentina at the time of the Falklands war; and an equally weak opposition in Britain, which seems incap- able of regaining power. She's also been lucky that the French like the British people even though they don't like her.'
Is she a great leader? 'No,' says Denis Baudouin. 'She's an outstanding prime minister, but she's not at the same level as de Gaulle, Churchill, Adenauer, or even Reagan. She lacks charisma, and you need that to be a great leader. Perhaps history will consider Britain lucky to have had her as a prime minister, but she is not exactly someone whom you would follow to the ends of the earth, is she?'
Le Monde's editior, Andre Fontaine, also would not count her among the world's all-time greats, but for a different reason. 'She is certainly a very remarkable woman, and she will necessarily have her place in history after being re-elected three times in succession. But she is not a Churchill. He was a great intellectual and creator. She is much more banal. Nor does she have the vision of someone like de Gaulle She's clearly intelligent, but she lacks a sense of humour, and I'm always a little wary of intelligence without humour. It must be the first time that Britain has had a prime minister without a sense of humour, isn't it? I have admiration for her, but she's not exactly my cup of tea. I find her too reactionary, too stiff, too haughty. I can imagine that it can be most disagree- able if one is not among her friends.'