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A covey of capitalist economists in socialist France

Pascal Salin sometimes feels like an exile living in his own country. ''We are really eccentric in this society,'' says Mr. Slain, a University of Paris economist.

That's because he is one of a small group of French economists advocating pure capitalism in a heavily socialist nation. The group is ''liberal'' in the old-fashioned meaning of that word, wanting greatly reduced government and vastly enlarged economic freedom for individuals. Their views range from ''monetarism'' (advocating a limited and steady growth in a nation's money supply), to the Austrian school of economics (a school further to the right, led by such famed economists as Friedrich A. von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises), to something close to anarchy.

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French leftists call the group the ''friendly fascists.'' The 30 or so ''liberal'' academics that make it up term themselves the ''new economists.''

The ''new economists'' of France have caused considerable political controversy. Michel Rocard, the Socialist-Communist government's minister of planning, once called Milton Friedman, leader of the monetarist school of economics, a ''murderer of civilization.'' But such economists are not yet of much practical influence in France.

''They do not represent a political force in France today,'' noted Robert Lozado, an economic adviser and writer for La Vie Francaise, a prominent French business magazine, and one of the few economic journalists in France sympathetic to monetarism.

But will the ideas of the ''new economists'' spread through the universities and eventually into the political realm, as they did in the United States, say after a dozen years or so?

''There is no way to tell,'' Mr. Lozado says.

But Henri Lepage, another French ''new economist,'' is convinced that the group's ideas are having their effect on French thinking. ''The left is taking hold of the government at a time when the left is receding at the intellectual level,'' he held in an interview. He added: ''The results at the voting booths are the results of the competition in the market for ideas for a long time.'' In other words, he expects that free-enterprise economics will eventually capture more political influence.

At the moment, however, leftists have not only won political power in France. Marxists, according to Mr. Lepage, dominate French universities. ''They have been taken over by leftists and communists,'' he maintains.

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That is one reason that both Mr. Lepage and Mr. Salin have been somewhat astonished at the attention their intellectual movement has won in France. Lepage wrote a book, ''Demain le capitalisme,'' which became a best seller in France. It sold some 40,000 copies, a large number for a book on economics. It has been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Swedish. In Sweden, the book prompted a debate in the newspapers which was dubbed ''the Lepage controversy.''

This spring the book was published in English under the title ''Tomorrow, Capitalism; the Economics of Economic Freedom'' (Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle, Ill., $14.95). The book is basically an exposition of the revolution in American economic thinking which helped put President Reagan in power. Mr. Lepage's father was associated with socialist intellectual circles and his grandfather was a left-wing mayor. Mr. Lepage, after studying economics at the University of Colorado and the London School of Economics, moved far to the right. The book, for instance, states: ''The shopworn formulas of Marxism, socialism, the New Deal, and Keynesianism have done little to explain or to relieve the harsh economic realities we face today.'' His solution is unblemished capitalism.

To the French ''new economists,'' the Gaullists and the party of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Raymond Barre are only a degree better than the Socialists. ''All these people are very similar,'' Professor Salin held , probably oversimplifying. ''They have about the same ideas. The Socialists will do in one year what would have taken 10 years under Giscard.'' Under Mr. Giscard d'Estaing, the proportion of total national output channeled through all levels of government increased from 36 to 43 percent. ''That is not exactly free-market economics,'' said Mr. Lozado, the journalist.

Under the Socialist-Communist government elected last year, nationalization of remaining private banks and several major industrial companies has meant further growth in the government's share of gross national product. But this shift has prompted no great objection among the public at large. ''The intervention of the government in France is so ingrained that practically no one notices it anymore,'' Lozado noted.

Nor has there been a wide acceptance of the basic economic idea that the rapid creation of money prompts further inflation. ''Monetary theory is not understood in France,'' Professor Salin complained.

But he believes thinking is changing. ''More and more people are asking for our articles, lectures, and so on,'' he noted. ''The ideas are getting known.''