It is common in Paris, the city of art, to bemoan the state of its contemporary arts. Corner an artist at a party and ask about the Paris avant sce`ne and the reply frequently, apologetically, is, "N'existe pas." Ask a dealer to name a couple of worthy young French painters on the cusp of stardom and he might well answer, "But there aren't any." Quiz a gallery owner about whom to collect and chances are you'll be told, "The Americans, the Germans, the British ... "

A single phrase might describe the '80s art scene in Paris: inferiority complex. Yet it is also true that the fine arts are flourishing here in way that has not been seen since the days of the New Realists, as someone rather illogically dubbed them, in the early 1960s. Arts journals, of which there are a handful, regularly profile young French painters, sculptors and photographers. The rare public place that doesn't display art advertises it; gallery posters are as common as cobblestones. In the Beaubourg-Marais area, near the 10-year-old Georges Pompidou complex, some dealers have done well enough to open branches, while an entire new art quarter has arisen in the once-ramshackle warehouses and tenement buildings around the Place de la Bastille.

But it is a quiet flourishing, without the bravado and boisterousness -- the hype -- of New York. It is tentative, almost as if the avant-garde is a little shy of being too avant.

"I would say that things here are very conservative," says a woman who acts as a broker of modern and contemporary canvases for galleries in New York. "If you're looking for an East Village or anything remotely like that, forget it."

To put it bluntly, French tastes in the fine arts do not tend toward the obscure, the alienated -- the contemporary -- especially in this age of the new bourgeoisie. It says much about the current state of things that the most talked-about cultural event in the last couple of years was the dedication in late 1986 of the Muse'e d'Orsay, France's shrine to itself in the late 19th century. News magazines have chronicled the resurgence of bustles, Herme`s scarves and the French version of Victorian, and artists have seen this glorification of the middle class reflected in a definite preference for the pictorial, even the pretty. The strongest recent art movement here has been "Nouvelle Figuration," paintings that you can hang on your walls without having to explain (too much) what they are.

But the fact that the French middle class is buying contemporary art of any sort is viewed by dealers as a significant development of the 1980s. They attribute the change in large part to the election of the Socialist government in 1981 and particularly to its charismatic former arts minister, Jack Lang.

Under his manic leadership, the government moved from being a mere protector of the arts, a sort of bureaucratic curator for the Louvre and other lesser museums, to an active, enthusiastic patron. It commissioned works from French artists and sent the paintings and sculptures on national tour to areas where even Picasso is still viewed with extreme suspicion. It let a sculptor named Daniel Buren fill the elegant courtyard of the Palais Royal with dozens of black and white columns of varying height and uncertain significance, touching off a scandal known as l'Affaire Buren. It even opened up the sacred Louvre, approving a controversial glass addition by I.M. Pei in the shape of a triangle that would jut postmodernly from the ground. The whole country, indeed the world, has become aware of the French avant-garde (though much of what seems forward looking to the French appears, if not backward, then at least sideways to pacesetters in New York, Berlin and London).

Still, the avant sce`ne here is most appreciated by foreigners. It is significant that almost every major contemporary-art gallery in the city does its briskest and most lucrative business with an overseas clientele -- a constant since the days when Impressionism defined the new radical. "One day," predicts Elisabeth Krief, co-owner of the Left Bank gallery Krief-Raymond, "we are going to wake up and the good French art will be abroad."

A lot of this has to do with price. The Mary Boones and Leo Castellis of the art world have made supernovae of young artists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and they command star prices; even the fees for lesser lights would have been unthinkable a few years ago. To American, Japanese, British and German collectors, used to a high (and ever climbing) cost of having, works by contemporary French artists seem like remarkable bargains. "American collectors ... remark that French artists are among the least expensive in the world," Krief says. But to French buyers, ambivalent toward contemporary art anyway, a few thousand francs for something of dubious prettiness is insupportable. French clients "are mute with astonishment at the prices," the Bastille gallery owner Franka Berndt told the monthly magazine Beaux Arts.

Dealers and artists, revered here as intellectuals even when their work is disparaged, must themselves accept a good part of the blame. Unlike the Boones and the Castellis of New York, gallery owners here do relatively little to promote artists' work beyond printing posters and staging opening night parties. French artists take a similar approach, disdaining the commercial sense that has made millionaires of the Schnabels and the David Salles.

But the atmosphere is changing, as is evident every October when the Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, or FIAC, opens a 10-day run at the giant glass-and-steel cream puff known as the Grand Palais.

The exhibition, in its 14th year, has become the biggest, most boisterous annual art event in the city, attracting more than 100 galleries and 120,000 visitors -- or 12,000 a day -- last year, with sales of more than 10 million francs (about $1.8 million at current exchange rates). It promises to spawn a number of such fairs, including one devoted to prints and works on paper.

While the art season in Paris begins in September when vacationers return from a month of indolence and eating, it does not get going until FIAC commences. Dealers try to reserve their finest (or most salable) works for the exhibit and often continue shows in their regular gallery spaces after FIAC ends.

After that, the focus shifts to the city's four gallery areas, each as related and as distinct as siblings.

Le plus snob of these, as the French would say, is in the 8th arrondissement among the antique shops and fashion houses near the Faubourg St.-Honore' and avenue Matignon. Here the emphasis is not on contemporary but on modern (read: Impressionist, post-Impressionist, neo-Impressionist, with a Dufy here, a Matisse there and an occasional Picasso for a spark of daring).

Toward the boulevard Haussmann and along rue de Teheran and rue de Lisbonne a handful of galleries show more recent works, such as Louis Carre', Louise Leiris or Mathias Fels. But even these often stop in the early '60s with such Nouveaux Realistes as Yves Klein, the master of the black splash on cobalt blue, or Raymond Hains, who created art from layered scraps of billboards. The most notable exception is Daniel Lelong, who runs what some of his colleagues believe is the most influential gallery in the city. His premier attraction is Britain's Francis Bacon, one of the most important artists now alive.

More affordable and more interesting is the Left Bank scene, situated between the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Seine and the boulevard Ste.-Germain. This is the center of the 1920s legend (Ste.-Germain-des-Arts, its proponents like to call it), and it is still frequented by collectors who are looking for works that will endure. But its intellectual grounding attracts dealers -- and buyers -- willing to take a few risks. Quality is the key, as at Claude Bernard, the neighborhood's grande dame, whose painters include David Hockney and the Italian Leonardo Cremonini (one of the stars of FIAC). Another noteworthy is Albert Loeb, who counts Franc ois Mitterrand among his faithful converts.

Very different still is the quartier Beaubourg-Marais. Here galleries are more daring, less serious -- and less apparent. The neighborhood has easily a couple of dozen dealers, with a new gallery appearing several times a year, though you have to search for them in courtyards and alleys around the vast spaces that once housed factories and artisans. The reason for the expansion here is mostly monetary -- rents are cheap compared with the other two areas mentioned. But the addition of the Georges Pompidou Center, with its emphasis on modern visual arts of all kinds, gives the area a hyper-hip vitality. The neighborhood hangout is Cafe' Costes, with spaceship bathrooms and furniture designed by the king of Euro-cool, Philippe Starck.

Very avant in its beginning, these tendencies have diminished a bit as respectability has set in. The best-known gallery internationally is unquestionably Daniel Templon, the affiliate of Leo Castelli (he has two spaces) -- with a stable of proven winners such as Jasper Johns and Claude Oldenhaus, and newer names like Salle and Robert Longo, how could he not be? More interesting is Yvon Lambert, with a showroom adjacent to the Beaubourg and a huge new gallery 10 minutes away in the heart of the old Marais. This second space, glass-roofed like the Muse'e d'Orsay, is monumental enough for Schnabel and such young and ponderous French artists as Christophe Boutin. Other places worth visiting are Liliane & Michel Durand and Galerie Laage Salomon.

The Bastille neighborhood fancies itself a burgeoning SoHo; it's still a lot grimier than its New York counterpart, and less developed, but is gentrifying fast. At the moment the neighborhood contains no more than 10 show spaces, including Andy Warhol's dealer, Lavignes-Bastille. But it has great vitality (and turnover), with a new gallery opening an average of every two months (and some closing). Most of these concentrate on French artists, the undiscovered and the youthful. And the neighborhood shines brightest in late October and early November, when its hundreds of artist residents open their studios for a weekend of browsing and explaining. Rumor has it that many of the premier galleries elsewhere in the city are set to open annexes here. For gallery owner Leif Sta hle, at least, it is a magic place: "One associates it," he says, "with a new era." Visitors interested in contemporary art should head first to the Pompidou Center (also known as the Beaubourg). The modern collection is spotty, as are the rotating exhibits, but at least the museum is starting to show the works of contemporary French artists, something it did only rarely in its first decade. The vast museum shop has a great collection of magazines, journals and other guides, the most useful of which is the "Guide Annuel de l'Art, 1987-1988," published by the glossy monthly Beaux Arts. Less helpful is Galeries magazine, though articles in it are in both French and English.

Another resource is to be found free in any gallery: a listing published every two months of every show in the neighborhood. Nina Martin is a journalist living in Paris.