An article yesterday on Nobelists in Paris gave an incorrect nickname of public relations woman Mabel H. (Muffie) Brandon. (Published 1/20/88)
PARIS, JAN. 18 -- A gathering of 76 Nobel Prize laureates opened an unprecedented conference today with the assignment of pooling their brainpower to guide the world's leaders with new light on the "threats and promises of the 21st century."
The Nobel winners, ranging from chemists to novelists, were brought together for four days of deliberations by American Elie Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his writings on the Holocaust, under the patronage of President Francois Mitterrand of France, a friend of Wiesel.
With 76 laureates or representatives of prize-winning groups on hand, one third of all Nobel Prize winners still alive, French officials said the conference marked the first time such a large sampling has gathered to discuss an organized set of problems.
As Mitterrand underlined in an opening speech, the occasion reinforced France's cherished idea of Paris as a major intellectual capital.
Besides Wiesel, well-known laureates present included former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, writer William Golding and West German ex-chancellor Willy Brandt. Among notable absentees were Mother Teresa, the nun celebrated for her work with Calcutta's poor; Lech Walesa, the dissident Polish labor leader, and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who was busy in Central America trying to implement the plan for which he won the peace prize last year.
Wiesel said the group here should produce a message for world leaders that would be "a beginning of progress" on the five major topics to be examined: disarmament and peace, development, science and technology, culture and society, and human rights.
"We are going to spend several days together, several days to work, to inform one another," said Mitterrand in launching the conference in the ornate Salle des Fetes of the Elysee Palace. "You are going to reflect together on the threats and promises of the 21st century."
Wiesel, asked earlier how four days of speeches, conversations and banquets could produce concrete results, said his goal was to reach a "certain unity" of thought that would be translated into a closing message "to those in power."
"We have no power, but we hope that those in power will listen," he told reporters.
Some asked whether this alone would be worthwhile. Herbert C. Brown, the 1979 chemistry laureate from Purdue University, said, "Everybody knows what the questions are. And the solutions are mostly known, too. The problem is instituting them, putting them into effect."
Dr. John O. Pastore, representing the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, said such conferences risk generating "a lot of platitudes" unless participants are forced to deal with concrete solutions.
Pastore said, in jest, that the first concrete problem the Nobel laureates should work on is the electronic locks at a large Paris hotel where participants are staying. Some scholars famous for scientific breakthroughs have been unable to get their room doors open with computer cards handed out by the receptionist, he and others recounted.
Pastore, a Boston cardiologist and son of former senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island, said he would try to present Mitterrand with a letter from his group endorsing abolition of nuclear weapons and urging the president to halt French nuclear testing.
In addition, he said he would seek to have such specific ideas expressed in whatever document the conference produces.
Mitterrand, reflecting a strong current in French public opinion and longstanding French policy, has credited nuclear weapons with preserving peace in Europe since World War II and has warned against denuclearization.
Another clash between ideas and real events erupted last week when Wiesel refused in a newspaper interview to criticize Israel in connection with recent violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Jean Daniel, a French magazine editor and friend of Wiesel, wrote that he fears the Nobel laureate, "believing he is being faithful to his own, might be renouncing himself."
Wiesel then referred to the "politically almost insoluble" Middle East problem in his speech, saying the issue was "how to reconcile the anguish of some with the need for identity of others."
"Frustrated and desperate children fight with rocks and burning tires, and other children, hardly any older, try to prevent them," he said, referring to Palestinian rioters and Israeli soldiers.
The conference's timing, about three months before French presidential elections in which Mitterrand is expected to run, also has produced clucking in Paris. Critics have suggested a design to portray him in a favorable light to voters.
This speculation has been fueled by a book due out soon in which Wiesel conducts a series of conversations with Mitterrand. The president has refused to announce his intentions as a way to retain the advantages of office, such as presiding at a conference of luminaries, as long as possible.
"Nobody here, I am sure, is seeking to benefit from your prestige," Mitterrand told the Nobel laureates in response to the political buzz and to questions reportedly raised by some participants.
In refrain, Wiesel said, "All possible questions will be posed in the coming days except one: Are you, yes or no, going to run again for president?"
Mitterrand's government has agreed to help finance the gathering, which Wiesel estimated could cost between $600,000 and $800,000.
Buffy Brandon, who runs a Washington public relations firm, said the largest source of financing was a $500,000 grant from a New York insurance company, Mutual of America, to the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
Despite the donation, she added, Mitterrand's aides refused to allow Mutual of America's name on the official program.