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Class consciousness in France: a barrier to economic growth? 'New realist' philosophers see social inequities as a threat to nation's future

What makes Jacques run? Francois de Closets asks this question in his book, ''Toujours Plus [Always More].'' His answer is: not much.

Despite its promise of egalite and fraternite, Mr. de Closets depicts a country with little social mobility divided by unfair, inherited privileges.

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De Closets's thinking puts him at the peak of a new intellectual wave here. Five years ago, the ''new philosophers'' posing existential questions were in vogue. Today, de Closets's pragmatic sociological and economic analysis is in.

''Toujours Plus'' has been near the top of the best-seller list for more than a year. During this period, other writers such as Michel Albert, Lionel Stoleru, and Jean-Claude Colli have joined de Closets in publishing popular books that attempt to show how France's rigid social system threatens France's economic well-being. The news weekly Le Point has dubbed them the ''new realists.''

Why this sudden change of focus, this new obsession with class?

''For the first time, the recession is beginning to cut into the typical Frenchman's purchasing power,'' de Closets explained in an interview with the Monitor at his sumptuous apartment in Paris's fashionable 16th Arrondissement.

''In other countries this happened a few years back. As a result, Frenchmen are finally seeing that some of their countrymen have umbrellas while others are getting drenched, and are asking, 'why?' ''

Part of the answer, Mr. de Closets says, is the wide gap between the rich and poor in France. In 1976, a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed the top 10 percent of French wage-earners got 30.4 percent of all take-home income while the bottom 10 percent earned only 1.4 percent. This made France the most unequal society in Western Europe.

In 1981, the Socialists came to power determined to make France more egalitarian. By slapping on a wealth tax and sharply increasing the minimum wage , they have made significant strides toward realizing this goal.

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But de Closets and the other new realists argue that income discrepancies are only part of the story. Lack of social mobility is perhaps even more crucial, they say, and here the Socialists have done little. De Closets's book documents a wide range of brakes slowing down the creation and distribution of both wealth and prestige. His list includes:

* An almost nonexistent inheritance tax.

The French tax is around 20 percent, compared with 70 percent in the United States. ''This creates a closed bourgeoisie,'' de Closets said. ''Inequality in France has become based on fortune, not revenue or talent.''

* An extensive privilege system.

This system stems from the huge state sector. Employees of semipublic monopolies are too numerous, too entrenched, and enjoy too many perks. Such privileges abound in the US, but not to the same extent, de Closets says. He cites workers for the state electricity firm, who get free electricity. ''People are protected here much more than in other countries.''

* A closed educational system.

The graduates of the grandes ecoles, which are similar to elite American graduate schools, are assured most of the best jobs. De Closets shows how the grandes ecoles are dominated by the children of the upper classes and how the number of places in the schools has not increased in 20 years.

''The result is a closed society,'' de Closets says. ''We distrust competition and prefer obtaining our place in life through a lottery, not skill.''

De Closets argues that French history and character have pushed each class into its fixed place. French history has emphasized direction from above: A huge state sector has evolved in Paris, with smaller-scale models constructed in localities. And since France is a largely Roman Catholic country, Max Weber's work ethic does not hold here. Making money is not admired, de Closets said, and this favors inherited wealth and amassed privileges.

The problem is not just that this rigid system of privileges is unfair and unequal, de Closets says. Most importantly, it threatens to destroy France's economy.

All the new realists emphasize this point. Lionel Stoleru describes a country cut in two - between those with the education and verve ready to fight the economic war of the electronic 21st century, and those lacking the necessary attributes. He laments the fact that France's social mechanisms leave too many Frenchmen in the second category.

Michel Albert goes further, saying that the protected and privileged status of so many Frenchmen has already led to a rejection of skilled, manual work. In his opinion, too, employees must be better skilled, better paid, and better regarded socially if France is to remain internationally competitive.

Finally, Jean-Claude Colli attacks head on the principle of advancing toward a more egalitarian society. The more egalitarianism, the less desire to produce wealth, he says. He concludes that that to stay rich, France must reduce the ''privileges'' stemming from its overblown protected sector.

De Closets agrees. ''Our social heritage works against capitalism,'' he says. ''We must learn to accept competition and respect the winners.''

De Closets advocates a better balance between ''the American struggle for wealth'' and ''certain principles of social justice.'' He cites his personal life as a television journalist and author. De Closets, whose grandfather lost the family's wealth but not its aristocratic surname, was forced to leave home at age 17 to earn a living. He dabbled in a variety of fields, at one point working as a clown in a circus.

Eventually, de Closets became a reporter for state-owned television. He continues there, a protected bureaucrat. But de Closets struck out on his own, free-lancing articles and writing two books of pop sociology before ''Toujours Plus.''

Looking about his magnificent apartment, he acknowledged that his television post makes him ''privileged,'' but he adds that no privilege has earned him his fortune as a writer. In other words, he has made the best of both worlds.

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