FRENCH bread is not on any international lists of strategic materials - it would go stale too fast to be stockpilled even if it were.
But policymakers in Paris are quite serious when they say that French bread "is doing its part for French independence."
French nationalists can take pleasure in the knowledge that the wheat that goes into the making of their daily boguettes and petits pains is almost entirely French.
That is not the way it is the the Netherlands, West Germany and Britain, which import 10 to 25 per cent of the wheat they need for bread.
Those countries have rarely grown enough high-quality wheat of their own, so flour millers have imported foreign wheats to mix with local grain. The flour from the foreign and local blends is baked into a bread that tends to be spongier, less crumbly and longer lasting than French bread. Stores can keep it longer and bakeries can ship it farther before it goes stale.
Cereal chemists believe that protein is the main reason for the difference. Protein, or gluten, is essential for making light breads that rise. The gluten in higher-protein flour retains more gas in the baking process and makes a spongier bread. Such flour can also absorb more water in the baking, which helps the loaf keep longer.
Most of the Europeans' imported grain is "hard" wheat - a brittle kerneled variety that thrives in the harsh, dry climates of North America and Australia. Cereal chemists say that the qualities it imparts to bread come from its slightly higher protein content than the "soft" wheats that predominate in Europe.
Wheat from the American Great Plains and western Canada has a hard kernel and a protein content of 11 to 15 per cent. Wheat grown in more humid climates east of the Mississippi River, on the West Coast and in most parts of West Europe has a softer kernel and protein of between 8 and 10 per cent.
IF Britons, Dutchmen and West Germans ate nothing but French bread, their millers and bakers could get along with much less than the 5 to 7 million metric tons of non-European wheat now required annually.France grows much more soft, all-purpose wheat than it needs, and other European countries could grow more soft wheat than they do now.
But that is not likely to happen. Switching to the French way would require a revolution in taste preferences, shopping habits and baking technologies. French bread is made from a basic recipe of local wheat flour, water, yeast and salt - none of the sugar, shortening, eggs, minerals, vitamins sometimes used elsewhere in Europe or in the United States.
French chauvinists extol the unique taste and crunchy crust of their bread, but one reason it is so good is that it must be eaten almost immediately after baking, often while still warm. It turns hard as a rock in a few hours.
That explains why France's bread industry is so decentralized, with 40,000 bakeries and 1,500 flour mills. "It's a question of technology as much as taste," a French miller said.
As purists, French bakers refuse to add the preservatives that could keep loaves fresh, and they abhor sealed wrappers. The wrappers might retard the staling, but the bakers say the crisp crusts would become soft and soggy.
The French bread sold in the Washington area is made from American wheat (most of it "soft" grain from central Illinois and Indiana). But in this field, imitation is a virtue, not a vice, and bakers outdo each other in trying to imitate the French product. One bakery, Vie de France, of Rockville, uses French-made ovens and employs several French bakers; they are French citizens working here as specialists on work permits.
The loaves sold in paper wrapers go stale in about a day because they contain no preservatives. The only compromise that Vie de France makes to satisfy American consumer preferences is to package some loaves in tied, polyethylene wrappers which trap moisture and keep loaves fresh longer.
"Making French bread is a high cost, labor intensive speciality," Lloyd Faul, the firm's general manager, says. "When you don't use preservatives, you need expert bakers to adjust the mix and vary the yeast according to temperature and humidity changes. French bakers start learning when they are 14. Most American white bread uses a much more automated process."
French diplomats say there are geopolitical and economic rationales for keeping French bread the way it is in France. The country's wheat imports are insignificant, a mere 200,000 tons a year, mostly durum wheat for making pasta.
The wheat bill of the other eight members of the European Common Markets is about $1.5 billion this year. "If we'd gone the French way, we, too, could be independent," a German wheat dealer noted.
Britain has poured money into research to reduce its wheat dependence. It has cut the percentage of foreign wheat in its bread from 50 to 25 per cent in the last 10 years. A new process invented by British researchers makes marketable bread out of flour that is lower in protein than was required earlier.
That is not necessarily good news for American wheat farmers, who sell 2 to 3 million tons a year to Western Europe. Incentives to encourage European farmers in several countries to raise more high protein wheat do not bode well for American farmers either.
Europe could come close to declaring its wheat independence some day. And in any case, West Europeans are eating much less bread than they did a decade ago.