It was hard to figure what France had done to deserve Evan Galbraith. It got harder every time Ronald Reagan's first ambassador to Paris popped off on the French domestic political scene, say, or on the ingrained gutlessness of his own country's professional diplomats. In less than four years he set some sort of record by drawing four formal protests from the French foreign ministry -- not to mention a rebuke from his own foreign minister, George Shultz ("He should have his tongue tied for him.").

So it's not as if nobody noticed. It's that the right people -- the president and his political handlers -- couldn't care less. If they had a care for the value of old allies, they would have had no trouble finding in this great land of ours a successor whose credentials were not necessarily impeccable but at least self-evident. That would have been not so much a repentance as a gesture of respect -- a way of saying "Sorry about that."

Instead, the White House has come up with Joe M. Rodgers, a stunningly successful, multimillionaire building contractor from Nashville whose qualifications on paper are even less imposing than those of his predecessor. Galbraith had at least been posted in Paris for five years by Morgan Guaranty Trust. Rodgers had visited France only four or five times "for several days," he told senators at his confirmation hearing.

His command of the French language began with a crash course this summer. But he would keep trying to "learn the beautiful French language" on the job, he said. Though he "might never master it," he thought his "managerial skills were much more important. I have run a company of over 1,000 employees, which is larger than an embassy."

Rodgers is owed the benefit of doubts. If he could build a contracting firm from an annual volume of $230,000 to $140 million in 10 years, he must have a certain capacity for growth. Anybody who raised $100 million as finance chairman for the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign was bound to catch the boss's eye. But why, in one of the three or four most important diplomatic relationships the United States conducts, do we go out of our way to raise gratuitous doubts?

This is not another treatise on political-versus-career ambassadors. Malcolm Toon, a recognized Soviet specialist who wound up his career as ambassador to Moscow, made the right point in reaction to the Rodgers appointment: "What is important is competence on the part of both political appointees and professionals. Some political appointees have it and some professionals don't."

Sending an ambassador "to a critical country without any knowledge is sheer stupidity," he added. "Our prestige suffers, we fail to get our message across and, most important, we look silly around the world."

The oint is particularly well taken in the case of France. In a paper presented at Rodgers' confirmation hearings, the American Academy of Diplomacy noted that the U.S. ambassadorship to France since World War II has been held by careerists for 15 years and political appointees for 25 years. But the group of former Foreign Service officers added, "The latter have almost invariably been individuals with extensive past exposure and experience in France or with immediate senior experience in policy-making positions, or both. . . . American ambassadors in Paris -- under presidents of both parties -- have probably been of higher consistent distinction than in any other single post abroad."

For a variety of reasons, the academy continued, Paris "may well be at this particular time the most difficult and important U.S. ambassadorship in the world." Not the least of the reasons is that France can be, well, difficult. The French are prickly, provocative, imperious. They are proud, to a fault, of their independence even within the collective institutions they see fit to join.

Geography, a nuclear strike force, an aloof relationship with NATO, an impending constitutional crisis turning on next year's parliamentary elections, a fiercely protective trade policy -- all these account for the academy's conclusion that "the next American ambassador in Paris will face formidable problems requiring the utmost skill and capacity."

Rodgers will have the performance of his immediate predecessor in his favor: there is nowhere to go but up. Galbraith took it upon himself to instruct the French about the workings of their internal politics (the Communist Party has no place). He publicly declared that "there is something about" the U.S. Foreign Service "that takes the guts out of (career) people." He propounded the proposition that the State Department is "too big a place to rely on the secretary and the deputy secretary to enforce the political policy." American ambassadors, he argued out loud, should be the ideological mirror image of the president.

Rodgers was wise enough at his confirmation hearings to promise, when prodded, not to meddle in French politics or to play partisan American politics in Paris. ("It is definitely a position that represents the whole country and all of its citizens.")

That those were the right answers is some comfort. But when you look at the roster of those who have followed Benjamin Franklin to Paris since 1778, you still have to wonder why such elementary questions had to be asked.