THE FRENCH WRITER Pierre Daninos once defined France as "50,000,000 individual cases." Charles de Gaulle saw his homeland in a different way. "How can you rule a country with 345 different cheeses," he once quipped. If there are nations whose people are hard to categorize, France must be near the top of the list. Foreigners who come to France end up by either hating or loving the French and their habits and both their hate and love are passionate. The French do not leave many people indifferent. So when the distinguished British historian Theodore Zeldin started out to define the French, he was attacking a task many would consider impossible. Zeldin came to the task well prepared. One of his previous works, France: 1848-1945 has been universally praised. Paris Match called it "the most perspicacious, the most deeply researched, the liveliest and the most enthralling panorama of French passions" and I agree with that assessment.

Zeldin recognizes early in his work, The French, that there is no real common denominator to describe this highly individualistic people. Bretons, Basques, Alsatians, or Corsicans have nothing in common other than the fact they can all travel on a French passport. France, as Zeldin points out, is a nation put together with very diversified people. Thus, the author set out to make a minute investigation of the complex mosaic that the French people represent. As a result we discover some interesting facts about the French, how they see themselves and how others see them.

As Zeldin explains, at the time of the unification of France in the 19th century, something like 25 percent of the population of France did not speak French at all, and another quarter "were virtually incapable of conducting a conversation in it." But French was already the most important international language, particularly the language of diplomats. Now the French language is in deep decline, much to the chagrin of the French government. Today, as Zeldin points out, 56 percent of learned papers published by French biochemists appear in English. When President Valery Giscard d'Estaing met with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt they talked in English. In the most prestigious French newspaper, Le Monde, one word in 166 is English, and "it is estimated that 5 percent of French is now franglais. No wonder the current French minister of culture, Jack Lang, speaks out so angrily from time to time about the "cultural imperialism of the United States."

Zeldin is particularly interesting on French intellectuals. "Any exploration of the French," he writes, "must include a visit to a Parisian intellectual, because he belongs to a small group that have cast a magic spell on the way the French are perceived by themselves, and by foreigners. One needs to learn how this magic works, or one will continue to repeat parrot-like the old platitudes about France and persist in believing the myths that have been created about it. Intellectuals are specialists in the interpretation of the meaning of life, they are professional manufacturers and salesmen of opinions; the opinions that are held about France were invented by intellectuals. So France has in a way been created by intellectuals as by kings and armies conquering territory. On a superficial level, the French derive their identity from more or less believing the myths the intellectuals have taught them." But through Zeldin we learn much more than the facts about French culture and intellectuals. He takes us on a voyage through French society where we meet workers, farmers, aristocrats, young people, husbands, wives, mistresses, cooks, and humorists, just to name a few.

One of Zeldin's most intriguing journeys is inside the Communist Party. He points out that the party is not just a ghetto "that lives separately from the nation. There are perhaps a quarter of a million party members at any one time (more or less depending on whether one believes its opponents or its supporters) but there is agreement that these members are changing all the time. The party recruits 70,000 new members every year, and about as many resign. This makes it one of the most active expressions of political commitment and disillusionment in the country. There are far more lapsed Communists than party members. The party may stand on the fringes of power but it has marked an enormous number of people at some stage in their lives."

Where I strongly disagree with Zeldin is his assessment that "the inclusion of a few Communists in the Mitterand government has shown that they behave much like other politicians, but it has not made the bulk of the membership feel any freer, any more than a few American blacks in office change the handicaps of racial minorities." This is a rather rosy way to picture the present participation of Communists in government. Though they only have a relatively few ministers--four out of some 40 --they have used these positions of power and the fact that they are a member of the ruling coalition skillfully to infiltrate every sector of French life--government, nationalized industries, radio and television-- with committed Communist cadres. If the Communists ever leave the government it will be a long time before the current effect they are having on these institutions will disappear.

But in closing the book, I admire Zeldin's courage in taking on the assignment and the incisive fashion in which he reveals the French character and personality. I have been asked a number of times to write a similar book and have always run away from the task because I thought it could not be done. Now it has. But in writing such a book, I would have added another chapter--"Howwthe French Drive" --because I think it is very revealing about some very deep factors of their character. France is one of the most dangerous countries of the world to drive in, because the person behind every wheel is so individualistic and often aggressive. One of the rules of French driving is that the car on the right has priority. This is often interpreted by a French driver as giving him the divine right to come out of a small side street onto a crowded thoroughfare without waiting because they come from the right. There is probably no city in the world where people run red lights more frequently than in Paris. This is part of constant need of many French to prove something, to overcome a feeling of insecurity, even at the expense of somebody else. Some idiot recently wrote an article in The Village Voice entitled "One Thousand and One Reasons to Hate the French." He should have read Zeldin. He might have still come away hating the French, as many do, but he could have expressed his hate in a more coherent way.