PARIS -- Halfway between the courtyard entrance and the front door at 9 rue Bonaparte lies the point at which Lee Hoagland's short legs can no longer match the lengthening strides of his older sister, who pulls away to easy victory in their sprint to the doorstep. That is when a soon-to-be 5-year-old boy joins the war of the sexes by trying to change rules in mid-game.
''Course a l'anglaise'' he shouts (to no avail, his sister being a modern 10-year-old). The phrase, picked up from his Paris schoolmates, denotes a reverse race. The winner is he who finishes last. ''Racing English-style,'' French children still call this obviously perfidious, deviant practice, 176 years after the English and French last engaged each other in war.
Enrolling children in a European school informs opinion on the Brave New Europe as much as reading press releases from Brussels or disquisitions of the eminent sages of London. Ancient rivalries and enduring cultural differences surface in the classroom and school yard, minus the varnish that adults usually feel compelled to apply.
This is true above all in France, where the school system converts French children instantly into small French adults who have not yet learned the art of dissembling. Discipline and rote instill several centuries of linguistic and cultural heritage into these little Frenchmen and Frenchwomen from kindergarten on.
''We French are colonized by the cruelest master of all,'' the late Edgar Faure, one of France's great politicians, once told me. ''We are colonized by our past.''
The French are also colonized by certainty. ''Madame Hoagland, soleil is pronounced so-layuh,'' 9-year-old Delphine tells the chatelaine of 9 rue Bonaparte in a mid-sentence interruption. ''Thank you, Delphine; you will be a good teacher when you grow up,'' responds the corrected one in mild exasperation. ''Oh, no, Madame Hoagland, I will be a lawyer.''
Distrust the British; remain on guard against the Germans; regard Americans as reverse Frenchmen -- adults who imitate children, because of a lack of discipline and culture. For today's French children, Japanese are not just transistor salesmen, as Gen. de Gaulle said three decades ago. Today they are very rich transistor salesmen.
These are attitudes that are not taught in any classroom here. But somehow they are embedded in the sayings and actions of French children who are thrown into close proximity with small foreigners.
Whatever changes ''Europe 1992'' brings to institutions and business practices in the European Community, generational osmosis will ensure that national character will persist in all parts of the New Europe.
The misplaced fears of Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley and their anti-Europe acolytes in America form a tissue of contradictions. They fear that British national character will somehow be overwhelmed by Eurocrats, and by a process that has not been strong enough to change German national character and has left the French still acting like ''poodles.''
Not bloody likely, mate.
You also learn about your own country by being involved in a foreign school. Visit with me, for a moment, a festival staged at l'Ecole Bilingue of Paris a few weeks ago:
First comes the Japanese stand, gorgeously decorated with floral arrangements flown in from Tokyo by the Japanese Embassy. Japanese artists and performers convey the culture of their country to an impressed French audience. Beside them stands a sprawling British display of Burberry raincoats, Aquascutum scarves, ginger biscuits and other tastefully displayed British goods that are on sale in French stores.
Italy displays a cornucopia of Italian authors translated into French and a small cafe that serves delicious espresso gratis. At the Republic of Armenia's large booth, artifacts and history books explain in tragic detail why there is no Republic of Armenia. Next door, half the size of the Armenian booth, is the U.S. display: baseball hats, posters of Jose' Canseco homering, a Redskins helmet. It is watched over by a harried lady.
Actually, that is no harried lady. That is my wife. She volunteered to run a U.S. display, hoping that the American Embassy might help as the other nations do, to win friends and influence a future elite of France.
Assume again, the embassy's community-relations officer says. Gramm-Rudman prohibits U.S. embassies from even thinking about handing out travel posters, baseball cards or anything that costs money. Gramm-Rudman means that there are no people in her office to do things even if there were money to do things, which there is not. Gramm-Rudman. . . .
Elizabeth gets the drift and does it herself. And it makes sense that U.S. taxpayers should not have to finance school displays abroad, however small the expense would be. But we take away more than that lesson from this experience. Gramm-Rudman and its draconian implementation within the State Department seem to be conditioning American diplomats to think 15 minutes ahead instead of looking at the broad horizon of the future and the world.
When the Republic of Armenia outshines the United States, even those of us who do not buy the decline theory pause to ponder.