AS THE WATER LEVEL of the Seine starts to peak

under Henri IV's equestrian gaze off Pont Neuf, so too does the summer rush of tourists crowding tree-lined boulevard caf,es deep in the 6th arrondisement's Latin Quarter, France's pubishing, editorial and literary bastion. By late summer, Paris has taken on the forlorn appearance of a deserted provincial parade ground as the French trundle off to the pleasures of the seaside, mountains or village farmhouse, and where "la litt,erature de la plage" in light romances, historical novels, family sagas, political memoirs, biographies and pastoral fiction creates big business for industry giants like Hachette, Gallimard, Le Seuil and Flammarion.

With a growing network of over 500 bookstores and thousands of distributors in street kiosks, railroad newsstands, grandes surfaces (K-Marts-cum-supermarkets) and stationeries, French publishing sells in excess of a billion dollars a year, a doubling of production in 20 years. Based on a recent UNESCO study on the ratio between a reading populace and books published, France ranks third in the world in non-governmental printed matter (nearly 30,000 titles a year of which almost half are new) behind leaders West Germany and Great Britain, and ahead of the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and Japan. No mean feat considering 32 percent of the globe speaks English, with a mere 7 percent speaking French.

Current best sellers, in a year of consolidation in socialist politics and disorientation in letters (the twin deaths of Jean-Paul Sartre and semiotician Roland Barthes in 1980 and neo-Freudian critic Jacques Lacan in the fall of 1981), reflect a certain moroseness and disinclination towards experimentation. While several foreign writers have made inroads with the French public--Le Choix de Sophie by William Styron, Colleen McCullough's An Indecent Obsession (coyly translated as Un autre nom pour l'amour) which received a whopping $150,000 in advances from publisher Belfond, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos--the national market remains relatively resistant to widespread penetration from abroad.

According to Ron Blunden, managing editor of Mazarine who bought the rights for Cosmos (reprinted three times and sold over 100,000 hardcover editions at $30 each), there's no guarantee American best sellers can automatically travel the Atlantic. Although the French admire certain "Yankee" qualities like impeccable research, risk-taking and unpretentiousness, cultural barriers, he contends, do exist. "Obviously French readers are looking for exoticism and folklore when they pick up an American book," says Blunden. "On the other hand their effort to overcome cultural differences--from Anglo-Saxon nonsense humor to California life styles--must be rewarded. Financial 'how- to-do' books or middle-class psychological 'self-help' literature are practically ignored over here. Gail Sheehy's Passages was a pathetic flop. Yet McCullough's The Thorn Birds, a universal family saga, triumphed whereas Judith Krantz's Princess Daisy, which was so unabashedly materialistic that even the most unsophisticated French reader got sick of its long shopping list of luxury items, fizzled."

As for money, still a taboo subject in French society, Blunden added: "For most Americans money is a tool, a neutral object. For the French it is a symbol. In French publishing this attitude helps to hinder long-term investment and risk-taking. We have no agents here in France. That would be tantamount to a vote of non-confidence and end the writer's 'Oh-so-personal' relationship with his publisher. Once you are associated with money you can no longer be an artist!"

If money is limited to brief allusions during nouvelle cuisine lunches, an examination of weekly best-seller lists also reveals little change among popular French authors. Competent fiction veterans like Max Gallo, Un crime trmes ordinaire, Herv,e Bazin, L'Eglise verte and Henri Troyat (the skillful biographer of Russian writers and nobility), Le pain de l',etranger, are still churning out their yearly wares with commendable sales of 50,000 copies plus. An exception, however, in nonfiction has been the arrival of newcomer Francoise Chandernagor and L'All,ee du Roi (an extraordinary 300,000 copies sold since last September), a nearly 600-page account of Francoise d'Aubign,e, marquise de Maintenon, who 300 years ago slipped out of prison at Niort into the good graces and royal bed of "Sun King" Louis XIV.

Other nonfiction works this year have demonstrated once again the fascination the genre "m,emoires" exerts on French readers, especially when applied to politicians (De Gaulle is a thriving industry 10 years after his death) and intellectuals. Not surprisingly, three internationally acclaimed intellectuals have stories to tell: the avuncular but sharp anti-totalitarian musings--which predate the fashionable "nouveaux philosophes" by decades--of Le Spectateur engag,e by Raymond Aron, Sartre's schoolmate from the 1920s and now doyen of European political history in France and, in an irony of sorts, senior editor at L'Express, France's most American weekly news magazine; M,emoires intimes by Georges Simenon, Belgian father of the French detective story (his commissaire Maigret series is translated into 55 languages, including Ouzbek, with over 500 million copies throughout the world), whose unsparing self- confession of his relationship with his daughter, Marie-Jo, who committed suicide three years ago, makes for harrowing but courageous reading; and La C,er,emonie des adieux by Simone de Beauvoir, the most authoritative hagiography to date on Sartre's last years, including glimpses of weakening intellectual powers propped up with drugs and alcohol, yet frequently sparked by his characteristically lucid thoughts on philosophy, literature, politics, sex, money, power, music and his startling adolescence (Beauvoir quotes Sartre as saying his ambition was "to have been Spinoza and Stendhal rolled into one").

This near-obsession by the French on the role played by intellectuals and writers has a long and complicated history. Balzac in 1840 even spoke of critics in Paris forging public opinion "out of ink and paper" and later wrote a highly satirical essay that dissected them into a taxonomic set of groupings and subgroupings. Perhaps the best barometer of the public's interest is to be found, oddly enough, on television. For over five years now, every Friday evening, millions of viewers have tuned in religiously to Apostrophes, a sort of electronic media's version of an updated 19th-century literary salon. With a pudgy and pugnacious Bernard Pivot as moderator-referee, the show highlights four or five "authors of the week" whose books are all related by a common theme (past shows have ranged from medieval romance to bandes dessin,ees, or comic strips) and in which pomposity, theatricality, wit and insight are given free reign.

Says Alain Finkielkraut, author of several brilliant polemics on the Holocaust like Le Juif imaginaire and L'Avenir d'un n,egation and loose member of the "nouveaux philosophes": "In France when an intellectual is not writing, to escape his own panic he talks about other intellectuals. But this is an entirely false and sterile topic. A program like Apostrophes--unique to France, as far as I know--is both good and bad. Good because occasionally an important book makes its way to a vast public. Bad because most best sellers are facile, cliche-ridden. But the world today between popular culture and avant-garde elitism is less pronounced. Dogmas on 'l',ecriture' (writing), the values placed on 'modernity' and the 'real' are being challenged. It is no longer taken for granted that a novel is only modern if it is tautological, a world in and of itself."

An outlook shared to a great extent by Janick Jossin, book editor for L'Express, whose weeklyal best-seller list is the trade's major indicator: "For the last few years it has been anarchy," she says frankly. "Everything is fractioned. Everything is 'metalanguage' or epistemological. Existentialism and structuralism are dead. In Germany and Italy they are still under the spell of Marxism and psychoanalysis. In France all monolithic systems of thought and ideology are under attack--Solzhenitsyn in 1974 was the first great thunderbolt to really hit us. Today the left wing is terribly discredited and with all forms of power suspect I would say we are going through a much needed period of maturation and repose."

Nonetheless, the Mitterand government is determined to make the public's awareness of reading an integral part of its cultural programs. At the 2nd Salon of Books held in late March, over 150,000 visitors passed through 750 display stands at the cavernous Grand Palais. Despite the impressive growth of the publishing industry since 1960, government studies show television taking its toll of reading skills among children while library attendance in the population is at a weak 15 percent (compared to a remarkable 30 percent in Great Britain). Since January, however, a price freeze on books has gone into effect and credits from the Ministry of Culture have been tripled for funding municipal libraries, aiding exportation (with heavy subsidies for translating French classics and best sellers, including two of Francois Mitterand's voluminous chronicles on socialism, L'Abeille et l'architecte and La Paille et le grain), improving distribution, and providing assistance to unknown but talented writers.

For a nation nourished on Proust, Mauriac, Camus, Malraux and Sartre, language is a heritage as precious as its cathedrals. Asked shortly before his death about the problem of writing, Roland Barthes said; "For me the world is language. People who talk. People who write. Each time I suffer or am hurt by the world, the political world or the world of relations--as Brecht said: 'There goes the world and it doesn't go well'--I always look on language as partly responsible for this. But at the same time I see in it possibiliities of overcoming this fatality by its own inventiveness. I have to manage with this contradiction. It's my lifework. Thus I'm perpetually denouncing the forms it assumes and at the same time I try to elaborate, guess, and desire utopias of language."