The French, who don't want their language sullied by Americanisms, don't call personal computers personal computers; they call them 'les ordinateurs personnels' instead.

That translates into "personal controllers," roughly. But no matter what they're called, the company that enjoys the most success selling them throughout the continent is International Business Machines Corp.

In scarcely two years, the world's largest computer company has come to dominate the business personal computer market in Europe as surely as it now dominates that market in the United States.

"We are now the leading manufacturer in Europe," says Alec McIntosh, who oversees IBM's personal computer marketing efforts on the continent, "If you tote up the numbers, we have about a 30 percent market share."

"Actually, I'm surprised it took them that long," says Bernard Maniglier, who runs the French subsidiary of Compaq Computer, an American company whose personal computer is designed to run IBM software.

The IBM PC has ascended to market leadership so swiftly and thoroughly that it has become a de facto standard throughout Europe. Leading national companies such as France's Honeywell-Bull, Italy's Olivetti and Sweden's Ericksson are now all manufacturing IBM-compatible personal computers. Local software companies are devoting the bulk of their development resources to creating programs for the machine. And the image of Charlie Chaplin's 'Little Tramp' -- IBM's successful advertising signature for the personal computer in America -- has worked equally well with Europeans.

At the Second IBM PC et Compatibles conference this past week at the Palais des Congress, IBM -- which has the biggest booth by far -- was the talk and envy of the 150 plus companies exhibiting here. "Everyone is playing catch-up to IBM," says one French venture capitalist.

For reasons ranging from a lack of technological innovation to conservative business equipment purchasing practices to a wait-and-see attitude on what IBM would do, Europe as a whole has lagged far behind the United States in personal computer sales.

"There's about a two-year gap between the U.S. and Europe," says Sylvie Benech, a Paris-based industry analyst for International Data Corp. "There's three times the market penetration of personal computers in the United States than in Europe."

But the European personal computer market is beginning to boom, thanks to an aggressive, multimillion dollar advertising campaigns and a growing sense that personal office automation technology is essential if Europe wishes to remain economically competitive with the United States and Japan.

In 1982, before IBM entered the market, scarcely 200,000 business personal computers were sold in Europe (that compared to about 1 million personal computers sold in the United States during that time). In 1983, the year IBM introduced its PC, more than 440,000 personal computers were sold with IBM quickly snatching 10 percent of the market, according to International Data Corp.

Last year, more than 760,000 personal computers were sold throughout Europe with IBM's share jumping to nearly 30 percent, according to Delphne Le Fevre, an analyst with Intelligence Electronics, a Paris-based market research group.

Of that, the United Kingdom purchased roughly 30 percent of Europe's personal computers; West Germany accounted for 21 percent of sales; the French for 15 percent; Italy for 10 percent, with the Benelux and Nordic countries picking up the rest.

This year, contend the analysts and many European observers, sales of personal computers for business could almost double, to more than 1.5 million units.

"Europe is growing along the same curve as the United States," says IBM's McIntosh, adding that "We're planning to double what we did last year."

He points out that even the strong dollar hasn't dampened IBM personal computer sales in Europe because virtually all the machines sold there are manufactured in Scotland. But McIntosh does say that the dollar may help prevent the kind of computer price wars in Europe that are rife in the United States because American firms may have trouble importing their computers at competitive prices.

Apple Computer Co., for example, is doing reasonably well, but isn't competitive with IBM because its computers are typically purchased for home, not office use. Moreover, IBM enjoys another competitive advantage in Europe, in that it also dominates the European market for mainframe computers. The company expects that European firms, like their American counterparts, will purchase personal computers in quantity to create internal corporate data networks that link smaller microcomputers to large central processing computers.

Despite -- or because of -- this dominant position in computer markets throughout Europe, IBM has taken great pains to position itself as a good corporate citizen in each country where it operates. Through several advertising campaigns, IBM portrays itself as French in France, English in England and German in Germany. In the words of a French media analyst, IBM is "trying to make people believe Big Blue IBM's worldwide nickname is a nice local firm and not a nasty American Big Brother."

While IBM commands the personal computer hardware industry, American personal computer companies have an even more commanding grasp of the European market. American software companies such as Lotus Development Corp., Ashton-Tate and Microsoft totally dominate European software sales for personal computers.

"It is hard to compete with the Americans," says Bertrand Lebel, of Compact Logiciel (French for software), a Parisian company that sells statistical packages to industry. "They've been around longer."

Indeed, according to International Data Corp. statistics, U.S. companies accounted for nearly 87 percent of the $50 million market for packaged personal computer software in France last year. In Germany, the best a local software company could manage was seventh in total sales behind six American companies. Even England, with a lively software tradition and a large personal computer base, pays most of its business productivity software money to American companies.

The key, argues David Patrick, vice president of international sales for Ashton-Tate, a California software company, is that the American companies had a large internal market and a significant lead time to develop software for it.

What these American companies have done, says Patrick, is take the American versions of their product, localize it using translators and local distribution networks, and come to market before local software companies could economically justify investing in personal computer software. Now the American companies are present in Europe with their electronic spreadsheet, database and word processing programs and the local companies may be forced into developing software for specialized vertical markets such as real estate or insurance programs.

Ashton Tate, for example, derives roughly one quarter of its estimated $80 million in annual sales overseas. It ships 11 different language versions of its products across Europe.

There are pitfalls in localizing products for foreign consumption. "You have to remember that a translation or cultural adaptation bug can be as serious a problem as a software bug," says Michael Enbar, managing director of the London-based International Software center.

Bill Lohse, formerly a European marketing director for MicroPro International, which sells the WordStar word processing program, recalls using an Austrian to translate the software documentation for the West German launch of the product.

"It's not that there were any errors in it," says Lohse, "but it didn't quite have the tone it should have had."

The Europeans are very concerned that American software will drive out local software talent, overcoming a tradition of software creativity in both France and England.

"We've been sitting around contemplating our navels for too long," said Ron Condon, an editor of PC Business World, a British computer publication.

"We are nowhere in the microcomputer software market," says Compaq's Moniglier, "Sadly, as a Frenchman, I say this. It is a vexing question for us."

There is general agreement that the Europeans will have to become more export-minded if they are to succeed in developing a strong national base for personal computers -- a market that will exceed $5.1 billion by 1989 according to one estimate.

International Software's Enbar predicts that one way the Europeans will build their software base is by acquiring U.S. software companies. Enbar points out that the industry is undergoing a shakeoout in the United States and that quality companies might be available inexpensively.