WHAT IS THE FRENCH president trying to tell us, beyond the fact that since Charles de Gaulle made it look so easy France's political leaders have to try to double as men of letters by grinding out political tomes?

Embarrassingly little, it turns out. French Democracy - the book, not the actuality - is lightweight on all counts. Essentially, its message is that capitalism is OK, communism is extremely naughty, and the French above all people would not enjoy having the state own their farms and businesses and make them live in "cells in a cement hive."

In a preface penned for the American edition of his book - the French edition was published and marketed last year with a fanfare just short of the second coming - Valery Giscard d'Estaing acknowledges that American readers may be underwhelmed by this analysis. But he holds out the promise that Americans will understand more about France by dipping into his blueprint of the "pluralist" society he is soldiering on to build.

Well, take that as you would a promise from any politician. The essential problem perhaps is not the average American reader's lack of understanding of the current French political scene, but rather Giscard's. His misreading of that scene for the past three years has helped bring France into a year-long, debilitating political campaign that leaves in doubt until next March whether French voters are going to decide that a little bit of communism might be good for them.

Gaul's book-buying public is divided into three parts as far as Giscard is concerned, a friend in Paris publishing says. There are those who have no intention of buying or reading the book, those who have bought it but not read it, and those who have read it but refuse to admit it. Despite the publicity barrage by the government-in-influenced media, the book has sunk without a trace from political discussion in France.

These are harsh judgments on Giscard, who has opened up the French political system to some extent and who has reduced the narrow and defensive anti-Americanism the Gaullists and communists love to stir up. He is a thoughtful man who can easily digress during an interview on politics to discuss Mozart or "Citizen Kane," which he has seen four or five times, and who proudly keeps in his office a photo of himself of Tolstoy's grave in Russia. One would expect a better book from him. Just as one would have expected a better presidency from the crisp and promising beginning he made at the Elysee three years ago.

But the book lends weight to the criticism from the political left and right that the aloof aristocrat who runs the Elysee is out of touch with the rest of the French.

"Cows," De Gaulle once snorted to a confidant, "the French are cows. They sleep when they should be working." De Gaulle never masked his disdain for his countrymen - but he clearly understood the French, and played masterfully on their easily aroused passions and their need to turn the routine into trauma, or at least good daily theater. He used their weaknesses to show his own towering strengths, and to push ahead with his plans.

VGE, as Giscard is known in French headlines, instead broods in his book over the "Mediterranean passion and a Latin liking for absolutes" that means that "alone among advanced democracies, France is characterized by "an ideological divorce" that prevents him from getting on with governing. While other parties stoke the adrenalin fires of French political life, Giscard writes the books to complain that they exist.

Pluralism is his political strategy for creating a new force from the "large expanding amorphous central group" of voters created by France's rapid industrialization and prosperity. Instead of confrontation, France's workers and bourgeois want moderate reforms in "classical liberalism," Giscard's euphemism for capitalism. Giscard's own moderate reform program collapsed shortly after this was written, as the French chose confrontation again and the political center evaporated in the heat.

Giscard, in the book and in general, is simply not credible. It is difficult for the French to square the great concern for equality and social justice voiced in these pages with the enormous importance Giscard attaches to the aristocratic title bought for his family by his father, and with VGE's own life style.

In passing and with regret, Giscard situates France politically in Southern Europe. Across this region, groups and systems that have held power since World War II or before are stumbling toward collapse or crisis - as exhausted as Haile Selassie or Jomo Kenyatta from staying too long at the trough, but still refusing to move aside. Giscard should have been of a transition generation, but like the Socialists and others in Italy, he has been unable to move clear of the embrace of the aging power groups.

"What we need is a different analysis and a different plan," Giscard writes, while increasing numbers of Frenchmen believe that what they need is a different president. Speaking of national education, he passes judgment not only on his slender, overly expensive book but also on the first three years of his presidency. "We must," he says, "Go back to the drawing board."