Sitting Pretty

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As a youthful protege of former President François Mitterrand, the blonde and curvaceous Elisabeth Guigou was once reportedly dismissed by fellow Socialist Edith Cresson as a political "Barbie doll" who owed her position to looks, not brains. But two decades of accomplishment have proved Guigou's worth. Her promotion last month to Minister of Labor — the third most powerful position in France's leftist government behind Finance Minister Laurent Fabius and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin — also makes Guigou a favorite to succeed Jospin if he leaves office for an expected presidential bid in 2002. That would make Guigou the nation's second female Premier, after Cresson.

Her chances of becoming this will depend on her performance as Labor Minister — a position she inherited Oct. 18 from the tough and didactic leftist Martine Aubry. Guigou's principal challenge will be to reconcile Aubry's worker-friendly policies — above all a controversial reduced 35-hour workweek — with pleas from business for more flexibility in an increasingly competitive global market. Her willingness to do that will also measure Gui-gou's own evolution from orthodox leftist to pragmatic administrator.

"Like Aubry, Guigou has convictions that are very much to the left, but she's also very astute politically," says former Culture Minister Françoise Giroud. "She'll make decisions in line with her beliefs but also remain attentive to public opinion. The reason she succeeds Aubry, after all, is to prove she has the political and managerial skills to become Prime Minister." If Guigou indeed makes it to Matignon, it will constitute a new high in a long-shot career. Born in Morocco in 1946, she came to France aged 19. A devout leftist, Guigou sought to enter politics via the Ecole Nationale d'Administration — incubator of France's politicians, diplomats and technocrats. A good student, she nonetheless failed the entrance exam twice — a result, she says, of discrimination by the elite school "because I was a woman and the daughter of a farmer." She got in on her third attempt and graduated in 1974.

Guigou's first political job came in 1982 as adviser to Socialist Finance Minister and future President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors. Later that year Mitterrand brought her to the Elysee as a presidential adviser on European issues, a position she gave up in 1990 when appointed Minister of European Affairs. Exiled after conservatives won 1993 legislative elections, Guigou returned to government with the left's 1997 win as France's first female Justice Minister — a moral victory after what Guigou describes as "obscene sexists attacks" that she'd suffered from male rivals and colleagues over the years.

Despite a lack of legal experience, Guigou proved a quick study and an active reformer. In just two years she won passage of laws enhancing the presumption of innocence, strengthening rights of victims and providing spousal benefits for gay and unmarried couples. But Guigou was most applauded for what she didn't do: continue the tradition of abusing the Justice Ministry to launch investigations of rival politicians and quashing inquiries targeting allies. Ending such practices, Guigou said, left Justice "no longer a ministry of scandals, but rather one of law."

That record of efficiency and evenhanded treatment made her a natural to fill the vacancy created when Aubry quit last month to run for mayor of Lille. Employers weary of the dictatorial Aubry rejoiced on hearing Guigou describe her preference for debate over diktat and for "listening to people before speaking myself." Applying the 35-hour week, she says, will require more "flexibility" than Aubry had allowed. Guigou has also indicated that other sore points — including spending and management changes in health, social security and jobless-insurance systems — may have been aggravated by "dialogue not having been sufficiently pursued." Although French business owners will find a more congenial negotiator in Guigou, analysts doubt she will move Aubry's policies — and the government with it — toward the center. Both women have similar leftist convictions and formative influences — Guigou as a Delors adviser, Aubry as Delors' daughter — and differ most in management style.

Meanwhile, Guigou will be wary of changing policies beloved of voters for reducing the workweek and lowering unemployment to 9.5%. If Guigou can find a way to harmonize the Socialist government's penchant for intensive regulation with free-market demands for relief, she'll indeed fit the prime ministerial profile — since that is a balancing act French premiers of all stripes have been seeking to pull off for decades.