In this series, correspondents for The Washington Post examine how middle-class families make ends meet in Western Europe and Japan and how their standards of living compares with middle-class Americans.

The French seem to have the art of living well down to a science.

Year after year, despite relatively higher prices than in the United States, the French manage to pad and protect their comforts.

They are so good at it that, whatever the statistics may say, the middle-class French citizen visibly lives at least as well as his or her American counterpart, even though the American still projects the image of being the world's most affluent bourgeois. The French take longer vacations, own more country homes and eat richer, if not healthier, meals than comparable Americans.

How do they do it?

One way appears to be that the French systematically chisel on their income taxes. That, at least, is the implication of a recent study by the French statistical agency, Insee.

Of the income that the French do report, the portion remaining after taxes and social security amounts to relatively more than in many other industrialized countries.

Insee's study complained that the revenue statements of households "are highly underestimated in all polls and in this one, among others." Roughly 30 percent of income is unreported, it guessed, but it admitted that it could be more.

Insee estimated that most French citizens conceal about the same proportion of their earnings, regardless of social class or income level.

The study amounted to an indirect admission that secretiveness is the key strategem for economic survival in France.

Even Americans who live for any length of time in France become infected with the prevailing attitude. An accountant who has U.S. clients said with a sigh that Americans who would not dream of anything but full reporting of their U.S. taxes are suddenly overcome by the urge to hide things when they fill out their French returns.

Other ways that the French cope with inflation -- although they are usually loathe to admit it -- are by skimping on a variety of expenses from restaurant meals to evenings at the opera.

But thinking small and being secretive does not mean that the French lead unpleasant lives. Far from it.

The French live well, but unlike the Americans, who enjoy showing their neighbors how well they live, the French will only discreetly suggest it.

The French bourgeois knosw the importance of fostering mystery and illusion: People should have the impression that one is well off, but nobody should be sure what one really has. This is because the tax man is considered capable of assuming many unexpected forms.

The enemy can sometimes be intimate. Many Frenchmen still believe there is no good purpose in letting their wives know the family's true worth. There was an outcry when the government recently rules that wives could countersign family income tax returns. But the government was careful to make this right to see the tax return optional, not mandatory.

The tax man himself reinforces the French tendency to hide things by assessing on the basis of "apparent signs of wealth" like cars, expensive boats and club memberships.

France is the country of the gold bug, or, as the French put it, "the wool stocking" -- the French housewife's hiding place for her jewelry is in the refrigerator, between the lettuce leaves.

It is generally calculated that there is as much gold held privately by French citizens as in the huge official gold hoard of the Bank of France.

When they are not hiding their wealth in gold bars and precious stones or at least in movable objects like fine paintings and period furniture, the French tend to invest in real estate. Even there, they are past masters at hiding true worth. Some of the most magnificent interiors in France are hidden behind some of the slummiest looking walls.

France holds the world records for the length of vacations and the percentage of people who own weekend houses. Nearly 10 percent of French families own one, according to Insee. The United States trails with 6.6 percent.

More than half the second homes in France are old farmhouses, typically bought by persons who want to renew their ties to the land.

Since the state obviously cannot rely on the individual income tax as its main source of revenue, it must find other ways to raise money. The French pioneered high rates of the value-added sales tax. It is 17.6 percent on most items.

Nationalized companies and state monopolies set the pace for inflation. The state tobacco monopoly just issued a stiff round of cigarette price increases. Gasoline is now approaching $3 a gallon. Even at the highest OPEC prices, unrefined crude oil is only 56 cents a gallon, so most of the French price is taxes.

The French citizen does expect a lot back from the state that an American does not. French state services are often of higher quality than American ones. The state-run public transportation system, including the railroads, is rapid, clean, pleasant and efficient. French social security covers most medical costs. The state provides substantial subsidies for families with three or more children.

Above all, the French middle class does not need to send its children to costly private schools or universities because, despite a decade of upheavals and reorganizations, the public system is still very good.

Nobody starves in France. The idea that society is responsible for providing everyone a decent existence is generally accepted. Even the growing ranks of the unemployed -- now between 1.2 million and 1.6 million, depending on whose statistical definition is used -- are not badly off in France. A person lade off the economic reasons can actually net more than his previous earnings if he enters a professional retraining program.

The words "ambition" and "aggressiveness" produce a negative reaction in French ears. The American tendency to present those traits as virtues puzzles many persons in France.

There is a growing segment of French society that professes to reject the old values. It is made up essentially of what the French call cadres -- a vague notion that can cover anything from executives to white collar workers generally. Broadly defined, it includes about 4 million people out of the work force of about 22 million. When one looks closely at how the most dynamic part of the French bourgeoisie actually lives and spends its money, one perceives that the old values die hard.

Even members of the new class of cadres generally refuse to discuss their personal finances. The kind of dinner-table conversations one might hear in West Germany, in which the central topic is the price to the last pfennig of everything being worn or consumed by those present, is unthinkable in France.

Yet one in France can get away from talking about the need for belt tightening, thanks to the energy crisis and other world problems. That is how a Frenchman can be led to say where he, or his neighbor as a metaphor for himself, plans to cut down. Out of a number of conversations, it emerges that most middle-class persons in France think they can probably survive the crisis by skimping on restaurant meals, other outings, clothing and, some say, their mistresses.

Nevertheless, the restaurants and the movie theaters are thriving, even at high prices by American standards, and French women seem as well dressed as ever.

The continued popularity of expensive, fashionable restaurants is not just a matter of expense accounts, although that is a large part of the explanation. It is also that the French generally maintain the mystery of their private lives by bringing only their most intimate friends home to dinner. Also, taking friends to the restaurant, no matter how expensive, is still cheaper than the old middle-class tradition of having a full-time live-in maid prized for her cooking abilities.

To listen to them, the French are not going to cut down on the things they hold most dear -- their cars, their vacations and above all, their food. Eating traditionally has represented a fifth to a quarter of family spending, according to official statistics, while lodgings have accounted for only about 10 percent.

This does not mean that the French waste money on food. It is just expensive, especially in the Paris area. In the Western world the French cook is the ultimate stretcher and recycler of leftovers. That, in fact, is the root of French cuisine. The sauces, the spices and the mustard were originally designed to hide gaminess and the other tastes of food turning bad. Later, when refrigeration became general, $1 la cuisine bourgeoise became almost a synonym for turning cheap cuts of meat into tasty, sauce-laden dishes.

A recent study concluded that the French devote another 10 percent of their incomes, an amount equal to that spent on lodging, to their cars. There are 18 million private automobiles registered -- about one per household.

The high price of gasoline and the onerousness of the annual tax on high horsepower engines have kept the French driving small cars, but it has not noticeable affected their driving habits. And energy cris notwithstanding, the government is not about to try to make them change.

President Giscard d'Estaing explained in a televised fireside chat in June that France must apply many stiff measures to reduce its petroleum consumption. However, he said "The government has chosen not to impose new restrictions on driving because it represents a large but limited portion of energy consumption and because the use of automobiles is for the French people a conquest, a social conquest, a conquest of freedom, of which they must not be deprived."

Despite France's position as the country of haute couture, French women have always known how to cut corners on clothes. The whole tradition of madame's little dressmaker -- whose identity was madame's best-kept secret, even from her closest friends -- was based on the idea of cleverly reproducing the year's high-priced fashion in lower-priced, but custom-made copies.

Even that has become too expensive, so madame has adopted new strategies: Buy one or two really good ready-to-wear outfits a year, often on sale with the label removed, or haunt the clothes racks of the Prisunic and the Monoprix, the fashion-conscious French answer to Woolworth's.

As for children's clothes, generally as expensive as grownup clothing, the answer is widening the circle for hand-me-downs, repairing more to stretch the useful life and, most of all, waiting for end-of-season sales. One mother of four, a woman with a degree from a good university and a prestigious job, spoke triumphantly of having bought one of her sons an anorak for next winter for $17 in a June sale at the Monoprix.

The father, a high-powered executive and one of few persons willing to talk about his lifestyle in terms of francs and centimes, said that the children had learned well from their parents that they must seek what he called "a high quality-price ratio." He talked proudly of the recent purchase by one of his sons of a pair of name-brand tennis shoes at an open air market for the equivalaent of $12.50. In a shoestore, said the father, they would have cost $35.

Another basic strategy for survival is the steady increase in France of the number of working wives. The 1975 census, which probably understated things since second salaries are often underclared, showed that there are two incomes in more than a third of all families.

The higher one moves up the social scale these days, the more likely it is that a French woman has an independent career. The days of the French bourgeois woman of leisure are almost gone. Educated women will stay home only when their children are young, and, even then, they often have nannies or other arrangements so they can work.

There are plenty of other, more substantial ways to stretch incomes. One family has been occupying the same large apartment off the Champs Elysees since 1910. They pay the equivalent of $75 a quarter for it, which goes far to explain why the building entrance is so run down and why the family has spent so much money on the luxurious interior.