SEARCHING since the Gulf war for a way to get his stalled domestic agenda moving again, French President Fran,cois Mitterrand chose a sensational step Wednesday in naming France's first woman prime minister. Edith Cresson, a former minister, Mitterrand loyalist, and in many ways France's leftist version of ``the Iron Lady,'' was named to replace Michel Rocard, prime minister since 1988.
The move, which includes a reshuffling of government ministers, is being interpreted as an attempt to get the government's record - and Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party - in shape for important electoral hurdles over the next two years.
In announcing Mr. Rocard's departure and Mrs. Cresson's arrival, Mitterrand said he wanted to ``muscle up'' the government for ``objective 1993'' - which he explained as the debut of Europe's competitive, survival-of-the-fittest single market. But French observers recognize that date as also the president's coming electoral obsession.
The French go to the polls in regional elections next year. More important, however, are the legislative elections of spring 1993. Mitterrand, in office until 1995, wants mightily to win those elections to avoid ending his presidency with a conservative prime minister and government.
But whether the outspoken and historically uncompromising Cresson will succeed in advancing government legislation where the methodical and consensus-seeking Rocard couldn't remains the central question.
``The president created a stir by naming a woman, but beyond that I think he's taking a real risk,'' says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for French Political Life Studies. ``He's hoping that a departing Rocard will take with him the bogged-down political climate. But that seems doubtful, just as one can wonder about Mrs. Creson's ability to move a [National] Assembly with no majority.''
Since the Socialists returned to power in 1988, they have not had an absolute majority in Parliament, forcing Rocard to ``open up'' to centrists. But that strategy has produced little lately. And as already high unemployment has inched up, some of France's major industries fallen on hard times, urban problems worsened, and a series of political scandals soured the atmosphere, Rocard has had few recent successes.
The more left-leaning Cresson is likely to find the centrist route unpalatable, which is why most observers expect to see a more forcefully leftist government program.
Cresson is expected to push an interventionist industrial policy - one that could lock horns with the free-market philosophy of the European Community's executive Commission.
As minister of agriculture, industry and foreign trade, and European affairs until last October - when she resigned over the Rocard government's ``lack of will'' on industrial issues - Cresson became known as a tough-fisted minister with a passion for defending French industry against unfair foreign competitors, most notably the Japanese.
``Japan is an adversary who doesn't play by the rules and which has the absolute objective of conquering the world,'' she said last year.
Thus France can be expected to toughen its position toward European Community policies aimed at opening its markets - as it did last week in blocking an agreement on access for Japanese cars.
Yet Cresson is not considered a simple Japan-basher. ``It makes no sense to rail against Japan or fear Germany,'' she has also said, ``the problem is right here [in France].'' Her response is expected to be higher government investment and involvement in industry along with a demand for ``fairer'' competition.
As for Rocard, he leaves office with a positive public rating and his eye on the 1995 presidential elections. Mitterrand, who has not always had smooth relations with Rocard, acknowledged his good position for the presidential race Wednesday by saying he ``will have other opportunities to serve France.''