France, cradle of so many of the world's great revolutionary movements, has given birth to an intellectual counterrevolution. The French intelligentsia -- historically identified with "progressive" causes by its worldwide audience -- has turned its back on the traditional left.

Like most such upheavals of the mind, this particular revolution has not received the attention it deserves from contemporary observers. It could be argued, however, that what has happened in France over the past few years will come to be viewed as one of the most significant historical developments in postwar Europe.

This is the story of a voyage of self-discovery undertaken by an entire generation of French thinkers.

The journey begins in the desperate days of World War II when Paris was under Nazi occupation and the main hope of salvation for many French writers and philosophers seemed to come from Joseph Stalin's Red Army advancing slowly from the East. It ends with the discrediting of Marxism and the gradual disappearance of a peculiarly French character type: the politically committed, left-wing intellectual fascinated by the idea of violent revolution as the key to achieving the elusive goals of Libert,e, Egalit,e, Fraternit,e.

Milestones along the way include the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the student upheavals in France in 1968, revelations about the Siberian labor camps, the sufferings of the Vietnamese "boat people," and the formation of an electoral pact between the Communist and Socialist Parties.

And now, at the end of the journey, denunciations of American imperialism have given way to demonstrations -- by former leftist intellectuals and by newly-activated right- wingers -- against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, repression in Poland or executions of political prisoners in Vietnam. Marx, Lenin and Fidel Castro have been toppled from their pedestals -- to be replaced by Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek and, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan.

The great paradox of this intellectual counterrevolution is that its closing stages have coincided with the arrival in power of this country's first left-wing government in over 25 years. When the socialist Francois Mitterrand was voted into office with communist support on May 10, 1981, most intellectuals stood on the sidelines, vaguely embarrassed by the sight of ecstatic crowds singing the Internationale as they surged toward the Place de la Bastille in Paris.

The reason for these feelings of discomfort lies in the love affair that French thinkers conducted with communism -- a story so passionate that it largely colored their subsequent attitude to the "Union of the Left" in the '70s, when the socialists replaced the communists as the largest left- wing party in France. Disillusioned by Marxism, the intellectuals sought refuge not in "Socialisme a la Francaise," as proclaimed by Mitterrand, but in silence.

In the words of Bernard-Henry Levy, one of France's "new philosophers" who came to prominence after the 1968 student-led rebellion, "The left triumphed when it was already dead."

Intellectuals matter in France in a way that strikes the Anglo-Saxon mind as curious. This was, after all, the nation that invented the term intellectuel, a country that has prided itself on its contribution to the history of ideas and rational thought. The impact of the great French intellectuals -- from Voltaire and Rousseau onward -- on public opinion has been out of all proportion to their numbers.

Thanks partly to their prestige, partly to the fact that they are based in Paris at the hub of the French communications industry, the intellectuals have been accepted at their own estimation as the keepers of the national conscience and prophets of social change. Opinion makers and politicians frequently take their rhetorical cues from the inbred clique of writers, philosophers and professors of the grandes ,ecoles who inhabit the cafes and bistros on the Left Bank of the Seine.

The audience for the great Parisian intellectuals has traditionally extended far beyond France itself. Intellectual fashions born in Paris are mimicked from Athens to Lisbon and Madrid -- and from there to Latin America. A shift away from the left here is bound to have repercussions in all those places.

Historically, French intellectuals have been identified with progressive causes. Their great battles have included the Dreyfus trial at the turn of the century when a Jewish army captain was wrongfully convicted of treason; the struggle against Fascism in the '30s and early '40s (when French communists played a dominant role in the underground resistance to Nazi occupation); the Spanish Civil War; decolonization in the '50s and '60s; opposition to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam; the students' revolution of 1968.

For years, the French Communist Party was regarded as the natural party of the intelligentsia. But it has now become the object of that special loathing that can only be truly felt by apostates who have seen the light after years of darkness. The actor and singer Yves Montand, who was close to the Communist Party in the '50s, has embarked on a new political career by denouncing the Soviet Union and all its works. The philosopher who was the spokesman for the pragmatic right, Raymond Aron, has won a posthumous intellectual victory over the hero of the Left, Jean-Paul Sartre. "Liberalism" -- which here connotes less state control -- has ousted "socialism" as the ideological catchword of the day.

Newspapers and magazines that have managed to ride the new intellectual trend have enjoyed a significant rise in readership. Others, such as Le Monde -- long regarded as the mouthpiece of the left-wing intelligentsia -- are in crisis.

The dramatic shift in intellectual mood has had a number of important political consequences. It helped discredit Mitterrand's purely tactical alliance with the communists -- an alliance that the communists broke off in July 1984 -- and encouraged the socialists to take a much tougher line toward the Soviet Union than previous conservative administrations. French foreign policy has become more Atlanticist, offsetting to a certain extent the concern felt in the United States about the rise of pacifism in West Germany.

The actual experience of left-wing rule for the first time in a generation has had the effect of confirming the new-born political skepticism of the French intelligentsia. Most of the major thinkers -- the so-called grands intellectuels -- had ceased to believe in the utopian dream of socialism by May 1981. So they were not all that surprised when the Socialist government's attempts to expand the economy at a time of worldwide recession were replaced by a conventional economic austerity program less than two years later.

If the grands intellectuels credit Mitterrand with anything, it is that in failing so spectacularly to "break with capitalism" he has succeeded in educating his fellow countrymen in the harsh realities of modern economics. In the now celebrated dictum of the sociologist Alain Touraine: "The essential merit of the left-wing government has been to rid us of socialist ideology."

Annie Kriegel is regarded by her peers as a full-fledged intellectual -- an accolade reserved for someone who helps shape what other people think. Small and untidy, she churns ideas around in her brain like an intellectual food processor before spitting them out in hurried bursts of conversation. Her study is crammed with period furniture, walls lined with untidy stacks of books a huge yellowing piles of L'Humanit,e, the newspaper of the French Communist Party.

From believing in communism, Kriegel has come full circle to treating it as a subject for academic study. Her analytical articles about the French Communist Party appear in the right-wing daily, Le Figaro.

Like many other intellectuals, Kriegel views her initial attraction to communism in the context of France's moral and psychological collapse at the beginning of the '40s. The values of liberal democracy had been discredited as a result of the fall of the Third Republic. The right stood accused of collaboration with the Nazis.

''We had no choice about becoming communists. There was nowhere else to seek refuge. For a couple of years, the only army advancing toward us was the Red Army. It's true that it was the Americans who liberated us -- but the turning point in the war was the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. It was the Red Army that gave us hope," she said.

For Kriegel, communism was synonymous with Stalinism. he turning point came in 1956 -- the year of both the Hungarian uprising and Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party denouncing Stalin's crimes. After the shock of rupture, another decade went by before she felt able to write about her experiences.

Jean-Marie Domenach, a writer and wartime resistance fighter, agrees with Kriegel that the war was vitally important in turning many French intellectuals into communists. "We saw evil and we needed good. At that period, good was incarnated by the Soviet Union," he said.

Domenach also believes, however, that the fascination with Marxism can be explained in psychological terms. "Marxism was a revelation for French intellectuals who have always sought to construct complete systems of thought. It provided them with an instrument for transforming the world. As communists, intellectuals derived pleasure from feeling that they were at once part of an elite and part of the masses," he said.

An even more tantalizing explanation for the intellectuals' attraction to Marxism is provided by Bernard-Henry Levy, one of the leading members of the group of France's "new philosophers" who were thrown up by the student turmoils of 1968. "The real motives were neither political nor psychological," insisted Levy, shaking his unkempt dark hair. "They were almost sexual. You can't explain it in rational terms. It was a fascination with force, a fascination with evil, a fascination with the devil. Evil is adorable."

Almost as an afterthought, he added: "You know, the more intelligent a person is, the bigger are his mistakes."

The 1968 upheavals, which began in the schools and universities and spread to the factories, threatening the fabric of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic, marks a cultural watershed in postwar France. Those street demonstrations and fevered, all-night mass meetings and debates produced a generation of intellectual anarchists who, after first destroying the sedate conformism of their parents, eventually exploded their own myths of student and worker self-government, permanent revolution and a romanticized Third World. The result is a society in which all ideologies are suspect and lack of political commitment is seen as an intellectual virtue.

The Communist Party was perhaps the biggest loser in 1968. In seeking to impose its own authority over youthful protesters like Bernard-Henry Levy, it succeeded only in antagonizing them. The authoritarian party bureaucracy and its powerful trade- union offshoot, the Confederation Generale du Travail, came to be viewed as just as much an enemy as the Gaullist regime itself.

"Sixty-eight was like a time bomb," said Levy. "The students' movement was profoundly anticommunist -- that is, anti- French communist and anti-Soviet -- and therefore antisocialist and anti-Marxist. Disillusioned by Moscow, we took an intellectual detour to Peking (during the cultural revolution.) Today we don't believe in either Peking or Moscow. We're not exactly cynics, but we have become more modest. We're no longer convinced that we have the answers to all the world's problems."

The anticommunist sentiment created in the wake of the 1968 upheavals grew steadily during the '70s. It was fueled by events like the attempted communist takeover in Portugal in 1975 and the growth of the Soviet dissident movement.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's description of a vast network of Soviet labor camps known as the "Gulag" probably had a more powerful impact in France than any other western country -- precisely because it came as such a revelation to intellectuals who had previously been blind to the defects of the Soviet system. "It was very difficult to take in the idea of both Auschwitz and the Gulag at the same time, so we concentrated on Auschwitz," explained Domenach.

It has now become routine here to speak of "the Solzhenitsyn effect" or "the Gulag effect" when describing the change in intellectual climate in France during the '70s.

"The image of the Soviet Union became totally degraded during the '70s," Kriegel said. "France is probably the country where anti-Sovietism and anticommunism have taken root most strongly."

At the same time, intellectual opinion began to turn against Sartre, the epitome of the politically committed philosopher. The grand old man of French letters was accused of distorting intellectual life for a generation by overshadowing all other thinkers, clinging to the narrow philosophy of Marxism for far too long and describing the Soviet Union (in 1954) as "the country of freedom." The splendid passion of Sartre gradually lost ground to the reasoned moderation of his old college roommate and ideological sparring partner, Raymond Aron, even though some intellectuals continued to insist that "it was better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron."

"Sartre had an abominable influence on French intellectual life. It was largely due to him that Marxism monopolized the spirits of the left after the war," said Domenach.

Toward the end of his life, Sartre began embracing liberal, anticommunist causes, even though he still considered himself "a man of the left." In 1979, he was symbolically reconciled with Aron when the two men appeared on the same platform (they were brought together by "new philosopher" Andre Glucksman) to draw attention to the plight of the Vietnamese boat people. In Sartre's last major interview before his death in 1980, he startled his disciples by proclaiming that political parties had caused "the death of the left".

By the time Mitterrand was elected in 1981 with communist support as the country's first socialist president in over a quarter of a century, the ideal of the union of the left was already intellectually discredited.

Many intellectuals reacted in dismay when the new president offered the communists four relatively minor posts in his cabinet. The move was seen by Mitterrand as essentially a tactical ploy to keep the unions quiet and squeeze the communist vote even further in future elections. But it horrified people like Levy who inisted that it was as bad as "having four fascist ministers in the government."

When first elected, the socialists had high hopes of being viewed as "the party of the intellectuals." A writer himself, Mitterrand "had the look of an intellectual," according to Annie Kriegel. He enjoyed the company of professional writers, was seen at the right cafes and restaurants and set himself up as both a friend and a patron of the arts. But France's most prominent thinkers stayed away from Mitterrand's formal inauguration. They also turned down offers of prestigious posts in the new administration.

There was a revealing -- and agonized -- debate in the columns of Le Monde in the summer of 1983. It began when Max Gallo, a well-known novelist who had accepted the position of government spokesman, bemoaned the fact that so few of his fellow intellectuals had come out in support of the socialist government.

Gallo provoked a flood of articles from writers, philosophers and sociologists explaining the reasons for their "silence" at considerable length. Most of them boiled down to disillusionment with the Communist Party and a wish to preserve a newly-won intellectual independence.

At private gatherings of intellectuals, Gallo was dismissed scornfully as un pauvre type (a sad case). His call to arms was described as "scandalous." He has since left the government. So have the communists -- but the attitude of most of the grands intellectuels remains as aloof as before.

"Most intellectuals voted for Mitterrand in 1981 -- but he has failed to excite them," commented Touraine. "There is a lethargy about intellectual life in this country which is quite spectacular. Never before have I known such a silence, such emptiness. It's like a family in which someone has died.'

The degradation of the image of the Soviet Union in the eyes of French intellectuals has been matched by an increasing admiration for the United States. The rise of Americophile sentiment in France is all the more remarkable if set against the background of anti-Americanism so skillfully fueled and exploited by nationalist politicians like De Gaulle. "There was a kind of metaphysical hatred for everything American," recalled Levy.

Domenach, who was regularly denied visas to enter the United States during the '50s because of his left-wing views, said America represented "the incarnation of capitalist evil" for many French intellectuals during the '50s and '60s. But today it is viewed as a dynamic society that has succeeded in creating jobs for millions of workers at a time when unemployment is rising in Western Europe.

Simultaneously, there has been a flip-flop in the way French intellectuals view Reagan. Writing in Le Monde, Andre Fontaine, one of France's leading political commentators, recalled that just four years ago Reagan was viewed by the majority of Frenchmen as "a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, totally out of touch with the realities of our times."

Today, Fontaine added, the U.S. president is regarded as a philosophical maitre d'ecole (school master). Reaganism has been the subject of numerous intellectual treatises in France and a popular best-seller entitled "The Conservative American Revolution" by Guy Sorman. An opinion poll conducted here last November's U.S. elections showed a 13-point preference among French voters for Reagan over Walter F. Mondale. Another poll showed that the French have become more "pro-American" than either the British or the Germans.

The changing image of America among the intellectuals has had an important impact on the politicians. When Mitterrand's minister of culture, Jack Lang, denounced American "cultural imperialism" at a United Nations conference in 1982, he became the butt of intellectual ridicule in France. Sensing the shift in mood, he changed his tune. Scarcely a week goes by nowadays without Lang making some gesture of appeasement, such as popping up at an exhibition of American paintings, inaugurating a festival of American films or pinning medals on the lapels of an American actor (Jerry Lewis and Clint Eastwood, among them).

Mitterrand, too, seems to have fallen under the spell. He returned home from a visit last year to the United States full of praise for American entrepreneurs.

As with the sudden discovery of China in the late '60s, the intellectual love affair with America is more a reflection of developments in France than in the United States. At a time when France is suffering through a painful attempt to modernize its economy, Reagan's America has become an issue in the domestic political debate. The right-wing Gaullists view the U.S. recovery as a convenient stick with which to beat the socialists. Whether unfettered and decentralized free enterprise would work in France is another matter.

Most French politicians of both left and right are convinced that it wouldn't. French society is organized on different principles than America -- with a strong, centralizing government as the pivot around which everything else revolves. The state was the engine for France's postwar economic miracle and it is doubtful whether even conservative right-wing politicians are prepared to take the radical step of dismantling it.

When Mitterrand returned from his trip to California last year, the entire intellectual and business establishment was able to agree that France should acquire its own Silicon Valley. The problem then arose of where to locate such a shining example of free enterprise. Since this was clearly too important a decision to be left to a bunch of software freaks following market forces, everybody is now waiting for the government to make up its mind.

Alain Touraine, who has written books on left-wing social movements, believes that the intellectual counter- revolution in France has a much broader significance than the immediate fate of the Socialist government. In his view, it is an epochal event that is likely to permanently alter the place of the intellectual in French society.

"The model of the politically committed left-wing intellectual dates back to the French revolution," explained Touraine. "It is based on an idea that is peculiarly French: the notion that freedom can only be achieved through violence and destruction of old traditions. To chop off the head of the king was seen as an act of liberty. French intellectuals believed that violence frees. This explains the attraction they felt to communism and Stalinism -- and their later fascination with the Third World."

In the eyes of French intellectuals, the French Revolution of 1789 legitimized revolutions in such countries as Russia, China and even Cambodia. A quasi-mystic idea took hold that revolutions are always good. When the French-educated Khmer Rouge began emptying the cities of Cambodia and massacring their political opponents, the terror initially went unreported by Le Monde's correspondent in Phnom Penh. The notion that such atrocities could be committed in the name of such a noble ideal was painfully difficult to accept.

The 1789 revolution remained a source of inspiration for the French left until Mitterrand's election as president. In October 1981, an orator at the Socialist Party congress, Paul Quiles, chilled his political opponents by conjuring up a symbolic image of revolutionary justice. Citing a speech by Robespierre to the Convention of Thermidor, Quiles said: "We mustn't be content with merely saying, 'Heads must fall'; we must determine which ones -- and quickly."

Midway through Mitterrand's seven-year term as president, such rhetoric is no longer fashionable. The question remains, however, whether it could come back into fashion if -- as seems likely -- the left finds itself back in opposition after the next election.

Right now, the prospects for a left-wing intellectual resurgence look bleak. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a prominent French historian, says he is impressed by the sharp shift away from the left among students and junior staff members in the faculty of humanities at the University of Paris. In elections last year for union representatives, there was a big increase in support for the nonideological Force Ouvriere trade union.

The ideal of the "Union of the Left" was dealt a further blow earlier this month when Communist Party leaders formally agreed to break with the 25-year strategy of trying to win power in alliance with the socialists. With the communists pointed firmly in the direction of ideological and political isolation, Socialist Party leaders have been attempting to decide what attitude they should take to the newly triumphant doctrine of liberalism shining like a beacon from Ronald Reagan's America.

The debate on "whither socialism" has only just begun and it is still unclear where it will lead. It is symptomatic of the mood of the times that it is being conducted not at the level of the grands intellectuels at all but among what is known here as the petits intellectuels -- schoolteachers, second-string professors and journalists who include many Socialist Party activists. (More than half the Socialist party deputies in parliament are former schoolteachers.) Having never embraced Stalinism themselves, they do not feel the same need to purge their souls.

The grands intellectuels, meanwhile, are busy writing books about the god that failed them. "Having made so many mistakes, we are learning to be more mistrustful of ourselves," said Morin.