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Rocard resigns, replaced by France's first woman prime minister

By JOHN PHILLIPS

PARIS -- President Francois Mitterrand, saying France has no time to lose to prepare for a united Europe, named confidante Edith Cresson to replace Michel Rocard Wednesday, making her the nation's first woman prime minister.

But in a live television speech to the nation beamed to millions Wednesday night, Mitterrand said he was sure Rocard, who resigned several hours earlier, 'will know when the day is come, how to render other services to the country,' a clear indication the 74-year-old Socialist head of state has not ruled out his moderate rival as an eventual candidate for the presidency.

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With the approach of a single European market in 1993, 'there is no time to lose' to prepare France to reap the benefits, Mitterrand said.

Cresson, he said, 'showed competence and character everywhere, seemed to me the most apt to direct this government, since it is a matter of obtaining the objective that I have set -- the 1993 objective.

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'I am confident. If we put everything into it, it will work,' Mitterrand said. 'If we turn in on ourselves it would be fatal.'

Mitterrand said Cresson would name her Cabinet Thursday.

Rocard, 60, tendered his resignation by letter to the Elysee Palace and Mitterrand, 74, accepted, government spokesman Hubert Vedrine said. It ended a term of three years and five days that was marked by exceptional popularity for a Fifth Republic prime minister.

Rocard's departure after a series of difficulties for his minority government in Parliament will leave Cresson, a 57-year-old confidante of Mitterrand who becomes the first woman prime minister in French history, with a difficult act to follow, political pundits said.

Chief among her tasks will be to try and reduce the number of unemployed from the current level of nearly 2.6 million workers, a problem widely seen as the main failure of the Mitterrand Socialist decade.

Cresson resigned as European affairs minister in October over deep differences with the moderate Rocard.

A Rocard aide said he would formally hand over his offices to Cresson Thursday but that he felt no ill will to his successor.

'Everything is happening gently, there is no emnity,' said the aide.

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An opinion poll released Wednesday showed Rocard remains a strong candidate to succeed Mitterrand and would defeat right-wing leaders Raymond Barre and Jacques Chirac in a presidential election though not conservative former President Valery Giscard D'Estaing.

Mitterrand had long wanted to remove Rocard to give a favorite time to woo the electorate before the 1993 legislative polls, political experts say.

But it was not immediately clear whether Cresson is his designated successor or merely a stopgap solution designed to jazz up the Socialists' image at a time when it has been tarnished by the jobless figures and scandals over alleged irregularities in their campaign funds.

In his letter to Mitterrand, Rocard made it clear the president had asked him to leave.

'You made me a party to your intention to form a new government,' Rocard said.'

Mitterrand replied in another note also made public, saying 'a new stage of your public life begins today. I am convinced that that it will offer you other chances to serve France.'

Cresson received a warm welcome from many feminists' organizations. The French Movement for Family Planning said it 'rejoiced' at the appointment and praised Cresson for 'having taken a courageous posiiton in quitting her ministerial post in October.'

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The pressure group said it was 'convinced she would show the same determination in her high responsibilities' and particularly with regard to 'the rights of women.'

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