The room is jammed, the noise a bludgeon to the senses. Standing aloof is a short, stocky woman, elegant in her second Chanel suit of the day Her face wears a mildly quizzical look as if she suddenly realizes that she is alone. Then the faint suggestion of relief softens the lines around her eyes and for the first time since Simone Veil arrived at the party she seems to relax.
As she says later, "I don't understand why I have this life. I didn't look for it and perhaps, it's difficult to bear."
At 52, she is president of the European Parliament, and one of the top three elected women officials in the world today, along with Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher. She is a former French cabinet minister, a former judge, a mother of three, and a survivor of Auschwitz. She is in Washington this week as ranking member of the 23-member parliamentary delegation holding plenary sessions with their counterparts from the U.S. Congress. Getting to know each other is as much a part of their after-hours agenda as campaigning is part of their politics.
She has the formidable air of the French intellectual which occasionally gives way to a self-deprecating burst of humility. Her eyes often dart around a room, but when making a point fix upon her interrogator. She is the kind of woman who says, "It's difficult for a woman to be a figure of authority because the very thing people admire in men becomes a point of criticism in women."
Though she's been in the limelight for six years, she hasn't yet come to grips with the fact that she's also a politician. She doesn't like to campaign though she did it last year at the insistence of French President Valery Gisgard d'Estaing. She won the race, some say, because of Gisgard's behind-the-scenes horse-trading, not because of her vigorous campaign style. Personally, she loathed campaigning because rather than a passion for ideas in one-on-one conversations, it required a passion for politics. Then, too, it put her in the spotlight. Now, standing here in this crowded living room of Rep. J. William Stanton (R-Ohio), attention is on her again. She's the one everyone is watching and maneuvering to stand beside when the photographer snaps the shutter.
"Yes, perhaps I am timid," she says when asked about it. "It's terrible for me to be what we call 'vedette' in French -- yes, that's it, 'star.' It's terrible being in the limelight. If I could, I would go under that table."
Simone Veil thrust herself into the limelight this week when she told a National Press Club audience she did not believe it was possible to separate the Olympic Games from politics.
"Politicians must take their responsibility," she said in response to a question about President Carter's call for a boycott. "Actions of this kind are not neutral, they commit those who make decisions. And I beleive that the games cannot be considered separate from political life."
What's more, she said, "at a time when people often say young people are no longer committed, no longer interested in the present world, the Olympic Games might be an opportunity to teach them what responsibility really is."
Her position was an instant hit, the applause immediate. Despite trembling hands and earlier uncertainty about what to talk about she had been a resounding success.
By evening, at the Stanton party, at least one member of the audience, parliamentary delegation vice chairman Maurice Martin of France, member of the parliament's Communist and Allies Group, was fuming.
With two interpreters standing by, Martin drafted a statement on the spot.
"With reference to what Madame Veil said on the Olympics, in which she advocated a boycott of the games," began Martin's statement, "I regret that attitude and condemn it. I disapprove totally of the words she used for one substantive reason: As a French Communist, I find it intolerable that a statement of that kind could be made by a representative of France to the European Parliament. It's fair to ask whether Madame Veil decided to endorse President Carter in Washington.
"There were 1,700,000 Vietnamese who died in the six-year-war and the Olympic Games went on," Martin's statement continued. "There were other very difficult periods and the Olympic Games went on."
Yesterday morning, Martin instituted his own boycott in yet another of the many squabbles on principle that characterize much of French politics. When the parliamentarians' first plenary session with the U.S. congressional delegation got underway on Capitol Hill, the chair reserved for him remained vacant. According to a delegation spokesman, he sent word he would not participate in any of the plenary sessions.
"Madame Veil is free to say what she thinks," said the spokesman. "Monsieur Martin is free to object." The Reluctant Role Model
Privately, Simone Veil is apprehensive about what kind of reception is awaiting her back home in France. She knows her stand on an Olympics boycott is unpopular with a majority of the French. Intellectuals there support it, but because of Andrei A. Sakharov -- not Afghanistan.
For five years, as the French minister of health who rammed abortion and contraception reforms through the legislature, she was the government's most popular member. She never fell below 56 percent in the polls and that meant, as the respected newspaper Le Monde pointed out some of her fans had to be Communists and Socialists. Certainly many of them were women.
She cannot understand why she became a role model to other women, for she sees herself "as only a woman who before six years ago was a judge, work that I liked very much, who has three children very important to my life and had no political ambitions."
Quite unexpectedly, she claims, all that changed when Giscard d'Estaing invited her to join his new cabinet in 1974. "Newspapers were writing names of women they thought he should consider, and they wrote about me. I don't know why," she says.
She was on a first-name basis with many of her cabinet colleagues since she, like they, came from the upper reaches of France's power elite. Her husband, Antoine Veil, head of France's No. 2 airline UTA, had been in politics for a while, but even then she hadn't liked politics much.
Though her husband is known to deplore accompanying her -- as "Mr. Simone Veil," he has joked on occasion -- she claims he has "no complexes" on that score, that her position does not bother him. "But society as a whole believes that it's hard for a husband to live in that situation even when it's not true." Yet, at another point, talking of Rosalynn Carter, she says: "It's difficult to be the wife of an important personality -- more difficult to be the husband of one, actually."
A Jew who had been sent to Auschwitz in 1944 (her name indelibly tatooed on her forearm), she was the only survivor in her family. Years later, she participated in the debate following the final episode of "Holocaust," viewed by 20 million French citizens.
Her opinion of the film contrasted sharply with those voiced by others. Characters where unreal, too nice, too civilized, she said. What people really resembled were animals who did anything in order to survive. That was the worst part of it all, the degradation of the victims so that it put them on a level with their jailers.
"There was a short, stunned silence in the studioi after she had said this, with the realization of all concerned that she had included herself, implicityly, among the survivors," wrote Edward Behr in the magazine Europe. i
In the same debate, she exploded when her present associations with former known wartime anti-Semites and pro-Germans were challenged.
"She has a terrible temper," says an associate, adding, "but don't we all at times?" A Preference for Home
Veil says men accept her as one of them in their parliamentary ranks "perhaps because I am French or that I have a bad disposition." She laughs uproariously -- one of the few times.
She is slightly piqued, though, that critics have described her as "authoritarian." "If a man is authoritarian, nobody protests. I know -- my successor as minister of health is more authoritarian than I was. The newspapers always said I was but they never say it about him."
Despite the fact that she, Britain's Thatcher and Gandhi of India are on top today, she does't think there has been much political progress for her sex since the trio included Israel's Golda Meir and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, 10 years ago.
"Many women want to have a political life and do something for a nation but they cannot because they cannot make progress within their parties. Then, too, men think only of politics and women do not. For myself, my children, my grandchildren, my house and other things are very important. If I had to choose between politics and home, I'd stay home."
It still may come to that.
Speculation is rising that Giscard is grooming Veil to be his prime minister when he runs for reelection in 1981.
"To be prime minister means you have certain abilities and tastes which I do not have at all," she told a National Press Club audience. "It's important to know where you should stop."
It's like the girl in La Fontaine's fabel, she said, "trying to do everything, get everything and ending up losing everything."