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Civilization, the way the French see it

Mission to Civilize: The French Way, by Mort Rosenblum. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 470 pp. $19.95 Americans need a good book on France. There are plenty of historical and travel tomes about our oldest ally, but few instructive volumes about modern France. All too often, damaging stereotypes persist. The French eat well, Americans admit, but their arrogance makes it difficult to enjoy the meal.

There's much more substance to this fascinating country: In the last generation, France has guarded its cherished traditions while transforming itself into a modern, industrial nation.

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Mort Rosenblum's ``Mission to Civilize'' aims to explain this great transformation. A roving reporter based in Paris for the Associated Press, Mr. Rosenblum profiles France and the French world view by traveling around the globe and describing Gallic influences wherever he goes.

What a grand tour! Rosenblum is a crackerjack journalist. His profile of the tiny, frozen specks of French territory off the Canadian coast, St. Pierre and Miquelon, make the reader want to travel to these forbidding locales. Wherever Rosenblum takes us, we meet fascinating characters, and because he writes in a crisp, clean style, the voyage all comes effortlessly.

Beyond the enjoyment of a good read, though, the book has problems. From beginning to end, Rosenblum finds France and the French pretentious. ``Today a subtly structured empire as rewarding as any in history maintains France as a world power,'' he writes, ``one that is based firmly and squarely on illusion.'' But is it? After all, despite seeing its empire reduced to such unimposing locales as St. Pierre and Miquelon, France has risen from its defeat in World War II to become the world's third-ranking nuclear power and the world's fourth-largest industrial exporter, all the while continuing to own a proud culture.

That's not, as Rosenblum suggests, trompe l'oeil. It makes for a healthy, prosperous country. Unlike both West Germany and Great Britain, France is not torn by self-doubt. When thousands of Germans were demonstrating against American nuclear weapons, the French, for better or worse, remained calm. Their president in the Elys'ee Palace, not the president in the White House, holds the reins of their own nuclear arsenal. France, to a large extent, can defend itself. And while Great Britain continues in its seemingly inexorable economic decline, the French - with successes in aviation, high-speed trains, and telecommunications (among other fields) - are soaring into the high-tech world.

What is special is the way the French combine the modern and the traditional. France boasts large supermarkets, perhaps the largest in the world, but every neighborhood continues to have an open market as well as small shops specializing in cheese, meat, or vegetables. Fast-food outlets are proliferating, but there also are small, family-run bistros. Statistics say that the French work harder and longer hours than the Germans. And yet this is the country of the quiet moment in the neighborhood caf'e, the sacred two-hour lunch, and the five-week vacation.

We Americans can learn much from this joie de vivre. Why, then, does Rosenblum waste so much time pulling putdown punches? For example, he writes: ``Renting cars is just one of these businesses the French cannot get down, whatever the fancy franchise. It is not in the French commercial spirit to try harder for strangers.''

Come on. Any American who speaks enough French to enter into French life will find most doors open to him - Gallic smiles included.

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If there were less haranguing about supposed Gallic bad manners and duplicity and more insight into the source of French strength, then ``Mission to Civilize'' would be quite a civilizing book.

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