PARIS -- I feel like Jerry Lewis in France when you hold me in your arms.

The Ben Vaughan Combo

This December may well be remembered here as the month Jerry Lewis brought Europe's first American-style fund-raising telethon to the country that views him as a profound philosopher-comique.

Twenty-eight hours later, 50 million Frenchmen had loved le telethon to the staggering tune of $33 million in contributions to muscular dystrophy, nearly five times the officials' privately stated goal. By comparison Lewis' 38th telethon last Labor Day weekend gleaned $39 million in the United States, which has five times the population of France. The stunning success of the French program portends a wave of similar televised appeals throughout Europe and the rest of the developed world, according to the telethon's backers here.

In partnership with the French government, which owns the participating telephone and television networks, the 28-hour program contained all the Vegas glitz, hoopla, pathos and shtick familiar to American viewers, yet provided enough French touches to impart a definite Gallic flavor. Some were even bizarre enough to bewilder and further wackify the manic slaptician the French mysteriously revere as Le Zerry.

Confusingly structured around and through one network's regular programming, the telethon was bookended by consecutive evening spectaculars featuring the likes of Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees, Nana Mouskouri, Michel Legrand, Shirley Bassey, Suzanne Vega, Paul Anka and scores of popular French performers.

But it was as much carnival as nightclub. Utilizing a literal army of French government workers and 25 remote production units broadcasting from around the country, it included everything from ski races, celebrity aerobics and a Chaplin silent film to motorcycle daredevils above the Seine and live remotes from a submarine off the Atlantic coast.

Yet, in spite of nearly every Frenchism, it remained Le Zerrython.

It is the Friday morning before rehearsals. Lewis, fresh from an exhausting 10-day promotional ballyhoo, decides to do a little shopping, and whirls like a Kansas twister through the glass doors of the Louis Vuitton showroom. Unfazed amid the Right Bank elegance in his white socks and Nikes, he proceeds in less than an hour to select 10 pieces of the ultimate luggage, ("Five for moi and five for mon femme," he beams), including a $500 Vuitton dog carrier.

"You make me proud to be French," a salesgirl whispers to him, totaling the $18,000 bill.

It is not that Lewis needs any luggage. He owns roughly 70 pieces of Louis Vuitton already, and even jokes about opening his own second-hand outlet, "Jewwy Luitton."

"It's like a kid in a candy store, okay?" his wife Sam patiently explains, as Lewis ponders his purchases.

Crowds surround him as he leaves, crying "Zerry! Zerry Le'wiss!", and the cafe' across from the television studio is elbow-to-elbow when the uncrowned king of France arrives for a sandwich lunch before rehearsal. A woman leans on her fries, a sandwich halted halfway to her mouth in disbelief as Monsieur Le'wis is shoehorned beside her.

"The only thing about not being a 'normal person,' " he says, while playacting to the fry-leaner, "is that sometimes you miss seeing the normal 'human condition.' I see it in a comical condition from my 'subnormal' position."

"Abnormal," taunts his personal assistant Claudia Stabile.

"Do you believe I pay her for this?" he asks.

After lunch, Lewis thanks the fry-leaner and walks hand-in-hand with Sam across the boulevard, stopping briefly for photo requests. At the studios, Paul McCartney has finished taping his telethon segment and brightens visibly as Jerry enters calling greetings in a loud, stage English accent.

"Ah," replies McCartney, "you make zee king of comedy very good ... " Photographers rush them as they emerge for an arms-about-the-shoulders portrait.

The opening credits roll at 8 p.m. Friday, complete with laser graphics headlining the stars and concluding "et Jerry Lewis." French television host Michel Drucker assumes center stage, explaining that a telethon is "a marathon telespectacle to touch your heart." On comes Zerry belting out "Come Rain or Come Shine," followed by his manic pantomime of a crazed musician in Michel Legrand's orchestra.

"He's a little bit nuts," says Drucker, whose wife actress Dany Saval costarred with Lewis in "Boeing Boeing," "but it's always a pleasure to have Jerry live before the camera because it's always a show."

The two-minute number goes over well, drawing strong applause. What Lewis has planned, waited and hoped for for 15 years is next up on the bill: his "gift to France," a nation that has accorded him its highest honors and greatest adoration for three decades. To the French he is their own: clown heir to Chaplin; a Laurel, Keaton or Kaye who, unable to speak their language, communicates instead with laughter. These next moments are France's first exposure to the alternatingly fascinating and repelling vision of a beloved sad-eyed clown speaking of dying children. Tension is obvious across his rubbery face. Double-talking patois and doing the funny walk, Zerry crosses the set to a very American tote board, but when he arrives beside Drucker he doffs his caricature without a wink to make his first pitch of the evening.

"The French people never knew," he begins haltingly as his French public relations counsel Yanou Collart translates, "that there were 15,000 people dying ... We can stop this disease with love ... with care and passion ... as we have in America ... We are this close to a cure ... I didn't want to be in any country but France because you have the best scientists and researchers and you can help me to help the children of France." Collart's eyes fill with tears slowly, her voice unwavering, as she says, "Look into your hearts ... and you will see behind the silly clown is a man who cares for children as you care ... " A long applause follows. More than the song or pantomime, the pitch, as they say, "plays in the balcony" and, more importantly, on the screen.

In an upstairs dressing room minutes later, Lewis silently watches a faceless rock group on the monitor for a few moments, then lapses into a crazed "Zerry" smile. "The French will love this. It's such a change from what they usually see," he announces. Collart says the telethon will let the French see "he's more than an actor, he's a man first with unlimited sensitivities."

The first phone rings at 8:20. Within five minutes, 100 phones are ringing. They ring nonstop for hours with pledges averaging $40 apiece.

"Every time they see Zerry talking to the French people, touching their hearts," he passionately tells a senior network official, "it is the first time they see Zerry as the man. That's what works. They grew up with Zerry. That's the excitement. They're seeing a man they've never seen before -- they're seeing the man behind the clown, with feelings they've never seen ... "

"He's changed tremendously since he met Sam {eight years ago} and had his heart surgery," Stabile suggested during rehearsal. "He has, in recent years, become the man he was born to be."

By 10 a.m. Saturday, while Jerry and Sam were having breakfast with French First Lady Danielle Mitterrand at the Elyse'e Palace ("jambon et fromage" {ham and cheese}, he will later tell the nationwide audience for the telethon's biggest laugh), the French have caught the fever. Pledges mounted to more than $10 million with 14 hours, "For Once in My Life," and "You'll Never Walk Alone" still to go.

"I think he's so well loved by French audiences because he does things to make people happy, things for the real people -- not the critics," conductor Legrand says. "He doesn't care what the critics say. A telethon without Jerry would not be a real telethon for us."

Despite "The Bellboy" or "The Nutty Professor" (to which Lewis is currently finishing a sequel script), the "Jerry" is ultimately Lewis' own best creation, and the telethon, a format he's pioneered and defined for nearly 40 years, that character's best showcase. Its marathon hours expand or contract to frame the aging manchild's multiple aspects -- entertainer/writer/director, producer/humanitarian and the eternal 9-year-old compulsive from Hell.

"I play that role honestly," he explains, "because it's really not having to play it. I think 9. When I get down and things are tough I become 61 and I don't like that because 61 for me has no sense of humor. Just a man with troubles. And there's too many men with trouble in the world."

"Jerry's an institution here," resident American slapstick entertainer Django Edwards says, as Lewis pratfalls from the wings, "because his early stuff is mostly clowning. In the States, there's no tradition of clowning, no people any more like Danny Kaye or Jerry." In France, clowning stretches back before medieval times, and endures in legendary figures like Marcel Marceau, with whom Lewis is often compared, he says. "The magnitude of this {telethon response} is partly a tribute to Jerry."

The hours rush by, the tuxedo goes on and off the hanger as numbers requiring Legion d' honneur member "Zerry" Lewis demand. As the dollars mount, a broad optimism and uneasy peace settles on Lewis. He is alternatingly gracious and abrasive, but never boring -- and never off.

He shows obvious frustration with some incomprehensibly French decisions concerning program content; decisions, for example, to solicit donations by showing celebrities smoking at a private dinner party, or to cut dystrophy sufferers' testimony for another lip-syncing vidstar, or to break phone-in momentum to air regular Saturday "Battlestar Galactica" episodes. "But they'll find out," Lewis says privately. "They'll learn. They'll have to -- it's their telethon." In the phone room, action continues at a near $2 million-an-hour rate.

"Because Jerry came for this," singer Nana Mouskouri says, "I think the people are much more enthusiastic. They see a certain truth behind it. They trust and love him and that's the reason, I think, for the success."

Lewis patiently answers the same question each reporter asks, posing for pictures, just as he has signed each child's autograph pad or scrap held forth. He is openly stunned by the magnitude of the French generosity. "This means we can literally turn over 25 to 30 million dollars to researchers on Monday," he tells a Canadian reporter. "I find it very difficult to take any credit. This is something the people of France did." Based upon the French "triumph," he says, he will move telethons into other countries quickly, possibly expanding his own Labor Day operations internationally. "Gonna have it worldwide soon, Jer?" one reporter asks. He nods silently, "You bet."

Suddenly his eyes are a 9-year-old's again and he's sparring with pantomimist Marceau, whom he spots standing in a distant corner. For 20 minutes, they engage in magic child's play while a soccer match soundlessly consumes le telethon's last on-air hour. Throughout the studio, a champagne celebration to shame New Year's is underway even before a Jerryvideo of "You'll Never Walk Alone" concludes the French broadcast. Phones continue ringing. Lewis' small six-person traveling party slips away through a side door into a limo, Sam holding Jerry's hand as the car lights flick away through an evening mist.

"Where does he get his energy?" wonders singer Gilbert Becaud backstage. "Well, an actor gets energy from his audience. I think it was Chopin or maybe Mozart who said, 'I'll play you anything you want, if you'll only just tell me that you love me first.' "