FRANCE is bidding for a more secure place as a global power - and not just by exploding nuclear bombs beneath South Pacific lagoons.
As the Pacific world condemned France's second nuclear test Oct. 1, diplomats in the African world quietly called on France to intervene in the Comoros, where French mercenary Bob Denard had just toppled his third regime.
The Bomb and the mercenary were standard issue for great powers in the bad old days of the cold war. But they are a heavy legacy for a nation that would rather be known for the high quality of its culture and its humanity.
France today also faces tough economic competition from the United States, Germany, and Japan while battling double-digit unemployment and enduring high tax rates.
What is France doing to stay in the game as a world power?
* French nuclear tests are intended to confirm France's viability as a nuclear power, its leaders say. The purpose of that power is not national glory, but to ensure the defense of Europe, they claim.
* With the launch of the Helios satellite July 7, France has cracked an American monopoly on military reconnaissance from space.
* Despite tight budgets, leaders plan to spend billions to extend France's cultural reach in the world, mainly to counter the spread of American culture.
For French voters, who for the last 20 years have cited jobs as their No. 1 concern, the cost of paying for such a world role is high. Voters are already registering doubts about their nation's course in the polls. President Jacques Chirac's approval rating - now only 33 percent - has dropped faster than that of any president in modern French history.
But Mr. Chirac doesn't face reelection for seven years and seems prepared to ride out the storm.
''France would not be France without grandeur,'' said former French President Charles de Gaulle in his World War II memoirs - a theme Chirac often invokes.
Grandeur a la Europe
The nuclear bomb was the centerpiece of De Gaulle's bid for global power for France in the 1960s. Today's French leaders insist it still is.
''The mastery of nuclear arms has allowed our nation to play a more important role in the world than could have been expected from simple arithmetic,'' Prime Minister Alain Juppe told French defense experts Sept. 7.
''Our influence on the [United Nations] Security Council, as a permanent member, is an illustration, even if the choice of the five wasn't originally made according to nuclear criteria,'' he added.
When the French president announced his decision to resume testing, he described it as an issue of national security and sovereignty.
But as international protests over French tests intensified, the argument shifted to a need for a credible deterrent for Europe, including a proposal to ''Europeanize'' the French bomb.
''One consequence of the opposition to nuclear tests has been to push France to be more European,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.
As long as nuclear weapons exist in the world, Europe will need a deterrent - and France can provide it, Mr. Juppe said two days after the first nuclear test on Sept. 5.
Germans, he says, must consider the following question: ''What can France bring [to the defense of Europe] that Germany does not already possess, thanks to the American nuclear deterrent?''
One answer to this question is France's July 7 launch of the Helios military-observation satellite. The $2 billion spy in the sky project, in which Italy and Spain are junior partners, gives France a close look at the same sheds and silos that American satellites pick up.
''Helios is at least as important as nuclear tests,'' says Paris-based defense analyst Paul Marie de La Gorce. ''Military intelligence is the basis of everything. In a time of world crisis, you need to know who is doing what. You cannot economize on this point.
''In Chad, and in the Gulf war, we found out that we did not have independent sources of information,'' he adds, referring to the 1983 deployment of some 3,000 French troops to Chad. In both conflicts, American satellite surveillance played a key role.
Another example: Bosnia. Had the US decided to no longer enforce the arms embargo in Bosnia, Europeans could have been left without the surveillance intelligence they needed to enforce it themselves.
Without its own satellite intelligence, Europe will lose ''the political weight that it should rightly have on the international scene,'' according to a May 2 report on the issue to the Western European Union, Europe's defense forum.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has promised an answer on whether Germany would join France in developing a second Helios satellite by the end of September, but has delayed his decision. Without German participation, Spain and Italy have suggested they might drop out of the project.
''There is a strong preference within the chancellor's office to go ahead with German-French cooperation on this project,'' says Klaus Becher, a fellow with the Bonn-based Research Institute of the German Society for Foreign Affairs. ''But with the strong opposition [among Germans] to French nuclear tests, there would be no political benefit to Kohl to announce this decision now.''
French officials insist they are prepared to proceed with the project even without partners. But German analyst Becher says that the top French officials no longer want to go it alone.
''The French offer to Europeanize intelligence shows that the old idea of national autonomy has been dropped by people at the top of the security apparatus,'' he says. ''They're a minority, but they're still at the top.''
Culture in the trenches
While a spirit of cooperation may be gaining ground on defense issues, the battle to preserve a global role for French culture is still waged from the trenches.
The battlefield is the world's movie, television, and computer screens, as well as its printed pages and daily conversations. The prize is the preservation of French as a language and France as a global power.
''The international status of French represents a key element in our nation's status as a world power,'' said then-Foreign Minister Juppe as he laid out a new strategy for the defense of French culture to French officials last year.
''Never has the French language been so threatened by what appears to be the irresistible ascent of English, or rather that impoverished Anglo-American [dialect] that is becoming the international language of communication,'' he added.
France's highest-profile battles have been to prevent the world's film and television industries from being overshadowed by Hollywood.
During the 1993 Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, France brought negotiations on liberalizing trade close to a breakdown over its calls for a ''cultural exception.''
Hollywood vigorously lobbied to make audio-visual industries part of the agreement. In the end, France carried the day.
Australian filmmaker Chris Noonan credits the French with leading the fight for this cultural exception. ''Most filmmakers in smaller nations are fearful that with the huge promotional budgets that come with Hollywood films, it will be easy for local content to be swamped,'' he says.
American lobbyists are more optimistic about their chances of beating back French calls for mandatory audio-visual quotas within the European Union. A 1989 EU directive calls on members to broadcast European-produced programming ''each time that is possible.''
''France has won only the support of Belgium, Greece, and Ireland among the member states,'' says Michael Bartholomew, director of European Union affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America.
In addition to seeking regulations to ensure diversity, France, like the United States, Britain, and Germany, conducts an aggressive strategy of ''cultural diplomacy.'' But no nation has developed as extensive or well-financed a global cultural network as the French.
Next year, France plans to increase its cultural budget by 8.7 percent to $3.2 billion. In addition, the French Foreign Ministry alone is spending more than $1.1 billion this year to promote French culture abroad.
This worldwide cultural and scientific network includes 9,000 French officials as well as 15,000 non-French employees, 300 schools, 132 cultural centers, 25 research institutes, and 1,060 Alliances Francaises language institutes in 140 countries. More than 56,000 consultants, writers, artists, and students are involved in French cultural exchanges each year.
Foreign Ministry officials credit Emperor Napoleon I with setting the tone for French cultural diplomacy when he brought writers, artists, and engineers on his 1798 military expedition to Egypt.
Troubled legacy in Africa
But the mix of military and cultural diplomacy occasionally has left a troubled legacy, especially in Africa. After 13 of its former African colonies claimed independence in the 1960s, France continued to weigh heavily on the Continent through massive subsidies, a strong contingent of French advisers, and military interventions. France still has 8,700 troops stationed at bases in Africa.
In January 1994, then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur devalued France's common currency with French-speaking Africa by 50 percent. Since then, officials from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have taken the place of French advisers alongside African bureaucrats.
One of key choices for Chirac will be how to manage France's African relationship. Former President Francois Mitterrand began his term by pledging to link African aid to progress in human rights. But this strategy was dropped.
Human rights groups have been especially critical of France's 1994 intervention in Rwanda. In June, Human Rights Watch/Africa condemned France and Zaire for training and then shielding members of the Hutu government responsible for killing 500,000 Tutsis.
During his state visit to Africa in July, Chirac struck Gaullist themes and emphasized his own warm personal ties to African leaders.
The presence of De Gaulle adviser Jacques Foccart at Chirac's side during this African visit also struck a note of continuity. ''Africa has its own rhythm, its own ways which must be respected, as it develops its own democratic institutions,'' Chirac said during his July 21 visit to the Ivory Coast.
But a consultant's report from the French Foreign Ministry leaked to the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine Sept. 27 charges that French companies and soldiers are involved in corruption, drug deals, and money laundering in Francophone Africa.
The Sept. 28 coup in the Comoro Islands led by French mercenary Bob Denard also recalls the dark days of French African policy. Mr. Denard effectively ruled the Comoros, a former French territory near Madagascar, from 1978 to 1989, when he was forced out by French forces.
''As long as France wants a global role, Africa will be important,'' political analyst Defarges says. ''But it is not clear France is ready to pay as much as it paid before.''