PARIS -- In a year of anniversaries and angst, the French are discovering that the political identity that Charles de Gaulle built and bequeathed to them was only a temporary truth, designed to get a proud people through a hard time.

It served that purpose admirably for 50 years. But the Gaullist vision of France as a nation of particular glory with a vocation to lead in world affairs fades rapidly as a new Europe coalesces around a unifying Germany, a newly free Eastern Europe and an integrated economic marketplace in the West. This July, the splendid and confident 200th birthday party that the French Republic gave itself last Bastille Day seems a distant echo from the past.

History's unfailing sense of irony has served to heighten a mood of uncertainty and debate over the very nature of French society. Celebrations of the 45th anniversary of the triumphant end of World War II have had to share place with serious new examination of France's defeat in the war 50 years ago, and the record of French collaboration with the occupying Nazis.

The success of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the skillful right-wing demagogue, has reawakened a long-dormant strain of antisemitism and racism in France. The desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Carpentras in May has been followed by a wave of less serious neo-Nazi and antisemitic incidents that give an eerie currency to the memories of the war years. The government has felt compelled to react by outlawing racist political speeches and banning three neo-Nazi publications.

As the Germans were moving irrevocably into the future, with economic union and a diplomatic breakthrough with the Soviets, old struggles that de Gaulle had supposedly buried threaten to break out here. As France celebrates the 100th anniversary of de Gaulle's birth, commentators here note that the French also seem to be burying the general and much of his heritage.

France's Socialist president, in power 10 years and showing signs of fatigue, adds to the disorientation by complaining -- accurately -- that social inequalities and a once socially unacceptable fascination with money have both grown during his reign. His conservative opponents spend their time savaging each other rather than the Socialists, and the results have been public disgust with them, and a sense that what was long Europe's most cohesive and effective political elite is being atomized.

The rebirth of Germany and the deepening distrust at home of the nation's political class combine to cloud France's claim to a world status that Frenchmen have long taken for granted. They confront a choice that causes many to recoil: to settle for being one nation among many in the new German-led Europe, or to pursue illusory policies of a lonely grandeur that France can no longer achieve. The second path is one of frustration that will feed the fires Le Pen stokes.

My sense is that the French will choose the first, realistic path. But that will be a painful decision for a people with a collective will to glory. As Paul Kennedy points out in "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," "France has always had an impact upon affairs far larger than might be expected from a country with a mere 4 percent of world GNP . . . . Sheer national assertiveness" made the French the natural candidates to lead postwar Europe rather than "the isolationist British or the subdued Germans," the Yale historian injudiciously added, writing before the Berlin Wall swung open and the Germans decided to be subdued no more.

Most countries would be delighted if their national dilemmas were no more dire than the one that faces France. The standard of living and the way of life (not the same thing, the French will tell you) in this rich, resilient country would be heaven on earth to 90 percent of the world's population. That I have lived here 10 out of the last 30 years is an indication of my own affection for the challenging mix of ideas, values and diversions that French life affords. No other people I know have a clearer or more positive self image than the French, despite their efforts to persuade you otherwise.

But therein lies the problem. What would be tiny spots on the national image elsewhere loom large for a French national psyche shaped by a driving sense of mission and cultural uniqueness. In the present period of prosperity, when inflation is below that of West Germany or the United States, and the franc's value up, it is an exaggeration to call the heavy mood of self-doubt an identity crisis, as a leading conservative politician did last week. But there is an element of truth in the observation.

The French grapple with a question that they believed was settled long ago: Who is French? A strange and troubling question in a country that has absorbed waves of Poles, Hungarians, White Russians, Cambodians, West Indians and others and turned them into baguette-munching, aperitif-sipping citizens. French culture and language decided who was French.

But new patterns of immigration from North Africa have brought a sizable and potentially indigestible Moslem minority -- Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans -- to this predominantly Catholic country. A figure like Le Pen benefits from a political crossover -- he finds supporters among those who hate or are frightened by both Arab and Jew.

Collaborationist writer Charles Maurras wrote in the 1930s of France's "internal foreigners," meaning primarily Jews. That psychology is revived as people dispute whether an Arab youth born in France and speaking flawless French with a Parisian accent is "French." As the Europeanization of the economy and the internationalization of culture and language proceed, it becomes increasingly difficult to say what remains "French."

Insecurities poke through the political declarations that are meant to dispel them. Thus Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris and leader of the neo-Gaullist faction in the opposition, on the subject of immigration:

"In our history immigration came in small doses that were absorbed gradually, while this time we face an overdose. Before, foreigners who settled in France were of European origin. They had the same culture and the same religion as we did. That is no longer the case. That is why the nation feels threatened."

"Threatened" is a strong word; but Chirac chose it carefully. The debate over immigration, racism and ultimately identity shows a staying power unusual in French politics. An acute sense of malaise can become 'Topic A' for a few weeks here and then fade as soon as the next intellectual fad arrives. But at times the sense of ennui clings, deepens and leads to the brief, unpredictable and often inexplicable explosions that break through the long periods of surface calm and stability of French history.

For beneath the surface calm run deep fissures that have not completely healed from the Revolution of 1789, the defeats of 1814, 1870 and 1940, the Algerian crisis of 1958 or even the student uprising of 1968. These are not distant, unrelated events for the French, but part of a continuum they actively inhabit.

Last year, when director Robert Hossein staged a theaterical version of the trial of Louis XVI, spectators at the show I attended hissed or cheered Robespierre and Citizen Capet as if they were living politicians. When the Chinese government murdered protesting students in Beijing in June 1989, the editor of Le Monde, the nation's most serious and intellectual daily newspaper, devoted parts of his editorial not to the behavior of the Chinese but to arguing that the violence conclusively demonstrated that his French rivals who had argued for the "Chinese model" in 1968 had been totally wrong. Indeed, every event, however distant or important, is refracted through the prism of the intellectual and political elite that dominates Paris, whose members let no score go unsettled.

The French have dwelt on themselves even more than usual this spring and summer as nonstop anniversaries have sent moments of glory and disgrace chasing each other willy-nilly across the calendar. May 8 marked the German surrender of 1945. Then came the more somber 50th anniversary of the German offensive that led to the fall of Paris. The biggest event in Paris was a festive commemoration of de Gaulle's June 18 broadcast from London founding the Free French resistance and declaring that France had lost a battle, but not the war.

This broadcast was the beginning of de Gaulle's long public career as a political psychiatrist, ministering to a nation that was to suffer traumas of defeat, betrayal and loss. From June 18, 1940, until his death in 1969, de Gaulle fashioned a political identity for the French that they donned and wore like a winter greatcoat against the harsh winds of history.

First de Gaulle convinced France that it had not lost World War II but had won it, with a little help from Britain and America. To hold the nation together at war's end, he persuaded the French (with ease) that they had not collaborated with the German occupiers. Although many administrators and politicians had in fact collaborated, de Gaulle brought them into his new government, as American historian Robert O. Paxton has shown in his trailblazing work on Vichy and its aftermath.

Brought back to power in 1958 to liquidate the Algerian crisis, de Gaulle convinced his army and the nation that building an atomic arsenal would give them a permament status as a world power, dominant over a divided, still dangerous Germany.

Finally, he projected France as a special partner with the African and Asian nations she had once ruled, uniquely qualified to guide paternally the peoples of the Third World to a better tomorrow.

But these four "truths" suddenly look threadbare as the force of history brings new realities. The Soviet collapse and Germany's dash to unification undermine the French nuclear deterrent as an instrument of political power. The French now see Africa and Asia as the source of immigration problems, not economic or political advantage. The end of empire reversed the flow of colonial administrators to the tropics and brought into France the laborers of the outposts. The rise of Le Pen and the fear of what is "non-French" has resurrected the racialist right wing that collaboration had seemingly discredited as a political movement in France.

There has been a strong and healthy reaction to the desecration of cemeteries and other manifestations of antisemitism. After avoiding the painful subject for decades, the French media have launched inquiries into the postwar exoneration of French officials who helped ship 60,000 Jews from France to Nazi concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of citizens filled the streets to protest the Carpentras desecration in May.

But this moral reaction has not stemmed the racist outbursts of Le Pen and his National Front movement, shown by polls to command the support of about 15 percent of the French electorate.

Le Pen's hand seems in fact to have been strengthened by the controversy over the Carpentras incident. The government has been unable to make any arrests after implying that Le Pen followers were responsible. And Le Pen has received another boost from the victories by Islamic fundamentalist candidates in the Algerian municipal elections last month.

"France must now fear millions of refugees fleeing the fundamentalists" in Algeria and seeking to join their relatives here, Le Pen warns, playing on the social tensions that the presence of at least 800,000 legal Algerian immigrants and probably half again that number of illegal settlers have already created. The growth of Moslem ghettos in public housing projects, the construction of mosques and the challenge of teachers' authority at school by a few fundamentalists validate Le Pen's approach for many.

The traditional right blames Socialist President Francois Mitterrand for deliberately enhancing Le Pen's strength as a maneuver to divide the conservatives and fragment their votes. Mitterrand's aides deny that the president has any such motives. But they cannot deny that the effect on the right has been to set factions against each other, nor that the establishment has yet to find an effective way to respond to Le Pen's demagogery.

Mitterrand at age 73 has begun to appear frailer at each public appearance and has lost his highly developed knack of calming French grumbling and anxiety with a commanding television appearance or virtuoso press interview. High-visibility performances that would have bought him two months of calm in the media a year ago now buy him two days.

I saw this new pattern begin without realizing it. Last March 25, Mitterrand went on a Sunday night television interview program and made his way gingerly through questions about the increasingly open splits in his Socialist party; maneuvering to succeed him has begun, even though he still has five years to go in his second term. He also skillfully undercut his (overly) popular Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, whom he dislikes, and sought to reassure his countrymen that he was managing the German question with great skill and foresight.

The old pro does his number, and with style, was my summation of the performance. I thought it would go down as well as it usually did with the electorate. But I had missed the context -- just as Mitterrand did.

Polls showed that many viewers had also seen an old pro doing his number, and had been dismayed by the gap between that performance and the serious new problems France faces. As France has awoken to the need to reposition itself in a changing Europe, Mitterrand has failed to provide a convincing vision of where France will fit in. This uncertainty, more than German unification itself, is what troubles the French.

The problem is broader than Mitterrand's performance, however. The establishment is on the defensive along a broad front as public confidence in France's politicians and administrators falls to historic lows for the Fifth Republic. A decade and a half of 10 percent unemployment in the work force -- and the relative pauperization of teachers, nurses and others at the bottom of the public-service pay scale in order to hold inflation in check -- have eroded respect for the state and those who lead it.

A beginning teacher at the Sorbonne who was the top graduate from one of France's most prestigious universities reports that he conducts classes in a hallway and earns the equivalent of $1,000 a month. There is a swelling exodus of able young people from government service, once the summit of French career ambitions. And there are telltale signs that petty corruption has started to infect what has been one of the world's most honest and honorable civil services.

These developments sap the sense of mission that has been central to French identity over the centuries, and especially to de Gaulle's successful effort to persuade the French that they could and should lead beyond their means. Europe and the world benefited from that effort.

The immediate task for the French is to manage a soft landing in the political storm of German unification. But beyond that, Mitterrand or his successor will need to take a page from de Gaulle's book of national psychiatry and craft a strong and clear new mission for the nation, one that is not built on nuclear theology or a leadership role that France can no longer play. That is the best way of keeping the French French.

Jim Hoagland is an associate editor and chief foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.