WASHINGTON — Legendary French film star Jeanne Moreau is puffing away on her cigarette, a Fine 120, in the strictly regulated nonsmoking restaurant of the Sofitel Hotel here. Two days into a whirlwind visit for the American Film Institute’s six-week French Film Festival, part of the Kennedy Center’s four-month Festival of France, Moreau is starving.

“I’m dying for a hamburger. No cheese, no fries,’’ she tells the waiter, who says nothing about the restaurant’s no-smoking policy.

This story first appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Who can blame him? Tiny, commanding and still something of a seductress, Moreau, 76, is a formidable character. She has taken time out from shooting a mini-series in Rome for French-Italian television to brave the bad weather and heightened security to do her part for Franco-American relations.

“It’s an honor for me to be invited,’’ she says, biting into a hefty chunk of ground sirloin. “We read in all the papers that here in this country there is a rejection of French people and things like that. What am I? I’m an artist, an actress, a film director and I come here because I am greatly honored to be invited.’’

The first woman inducted into the French Academy of Fine Arts, Moreau is the embodiment of French style and culture. With her husky voice, her passion for filmmaking, her love of fashion and her outspoken toughness, she isn’t at all shy about voicing her likes and dislikes — about anything.

For instance, Moreau — who has had love affairs with everyone from Pierre Cardin to Louis Malle and Lee Marvin — is not much of an advertisement for President Bush’s new legislative initiative to encourage marriage.

“I’ve been married twice,’’ she says. “It doesn’t suit me, maybe because the two men I married were very possessive. That’s what I don’t like, a relationship with somebody who becomes possessive after the marriage. Passion doesn’t last. It has to transform itself. But love is something that is deeply grounded and you have to work on it and be very generous, and it doesn’t go with being possessive.’’

Nor is she much in awe of America’s war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.

“We live in a world where you have to make war to find peace. It’s quite extravagant,’’ she says. “We want peace, so we have to go to war. Any stranger, any unknown person is a threat. Even your neighbors in your own building. It’s quite depressing.’’

Unlike many Parisians, she welcomes the upsurge in immigrants, saying, “I remember when New York was the melting pot. Now the whole world is a melting pot. You walk in Paris now, you hear 20 different languages. It’s richness.’’

Her vehement opposition to any kind of ethnic profiling even extends to the old adage about Frenchmen making the best lovers.

“I can’t believe the question,’’ she says with just the slightest trace of theatrical affect. Still, she has a point to make. “You can’t generalize. Even if a friend of yours says, ‘Oh, that one. He is a jerk. He’s nothing.’ Maybe the alchemy is going to be extraordinary with you. Whatever you think of the country he comes from, you can’t generalize. That’s how you start wars, you see.’’

But when it comes to U.S. policy allowing the display of images of Saddam Hussein caught in his bunker, Moreau is solidly hard-line.

“Now that he’s captured, he’s just another nobody,’’ she says, voicing disgust at recent reports that Hussein is now cooperating with American authorities. “Oh God, this man is revealing people. He’s a yellow, no pride, nothing.’’

Having grown up in German-occupied France during World War II, the daughter of an English dancer and a French restaurant owner, Moreau feels a strong bond to the United States. Speaking to a crowd gathered at the French embassy last week to welcome her, she recalls hearing the report on the radio that the Americans had landed in Normandy. “I can’t describe the feeling,’’ she says, her voice choking with emotion.

As one French embassy official later confides, “The moment we asked her to come, she accepted.”

Moreau is quick to list what she likes best about America — the energy, the literature and the pop music. “I like the way people when they become Americans are so proud,’’ she says, adding that she isn’t the least bit concerned about America’s heightened security alerts. “Since you are born, you are in danger of dying,’’ says the actress, who in September made headlines for being robbed before dawn in her Paris apartment near the Arc de Triomphe.

“I was in my bed naked. It was very hot,’’ she says. “I spoke to him. I told him what to do. He asked for money. I said, ‘It’s there.’ He said, ‘Do you have a safe?’ I said, ‘You’re joking. I don’t have a safe.’ He believed me immediately. And I said,’The jewels, they’re here in the drawer. No, that’s not real. That’s the good one. Don’t take that because nobody would buy that.’ Finally I said,’You have to leave. The lady and her husband are coming up with the electrician at 8 o’clock.’’’

When Moreau finally convinced the man to leave, he asked her, “How do I get out?’’ to which she replied, “The way you came in.’’

Since then, Moreau has taken to locking her door when she is at home. As for her jewelry, which was uninsured, she found a few pieces lying in the hall that must have fallen out of his pockets. And her friends have pitched in to help. The House of Dior gave her a new man’s watch. “I always wear men’s watches,’’ she says, noting that she also likes wearing men’s suits custom-made for her by Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane.

But as excited as she is to be in America, the trip has not been without its trials, like the pain in her neck and shoulder that followed her from Rome to Paris to Washington. At the French embassy reception, she takes a moment to retreat to a small love seat in a sumptuously decorated sitting room where Oscar-winning French musician Michel Legrand sits at her side, massaging her neck.

“It comes from the spine,’’ says Moreau, wearing a suit designed by Karl Lagerfeld and a blouse designed by her former lover, Pierre Cardin. She figures she hurt herself in costume fittings for her upcoming film, directed by Josee Dayan. “It’s a period piece about Napoleon III, and I wear corsets, which I love. At the Comédie Française I played all the classical plays and you always wore a corset. But on the day of the fitting, the lady who knows how to handle the corsets, she wasn’t there. So I did it myself.’’

Washington’s potholed streets have compounded the problem.

“The drive coming over here in the car was very bumpy,’’ confides Moreau’s longtime friend and traveling companion, Florence Malraux, daughter of French literary icon André Malraux. She was writing for L’Express, 30 years ago, when the two women became friends. Moreau convinced her to join the crew of one of her most famous films, “Jules and Jim.’’

The secret of their friendship? Malraux whispers: “We share everything — everything except husbands.’’

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