Frenchman's brilliance ... and bad ink

Jacques Attali, chief adviser to the French President, has the reputation of being a Wunderkind. So extraordinary is the intellectual energy of Mr. Attali that he found time outside of his long duties at the Elysee Palace to complete his ninth book.

How? By rising at 4:00 a.m. and writing for two hours before heading off to give the President his morning briefing.

But Attali was evidently too audacious. After the release to glowing reviews of his latest book, ''Histoire du Temps,'' critics revealed that some passages had been taken without proper annotation from such historians as Jacob Burckhardt, Ernst Junger, and Jacques Le Goff.

Although few accuse Attali of outright plagiarism - sloppy research methods and editing is the more common charge - the ''affaire Attali'' has turned into a political embarrassment for President Francois Mitterrand. The opposition cites the affair as another example of government incompetence - similar to the recent disappearance of a crane, which led to cancelation of a televised presidential interview.

Even the pro-Mitterrand writer Jean-Edern Hallier said it would be logical to dismiss Attali - just as the television boss who fouled up the interview was sacked. Others asked whether a thinker so slipshod in putting his ideas before the public should be putting his ideas before the President.

There is no sign, however, that Attali is considering stepping down. Although passages in the book were copied, Attali's publishers explained the problem was only the result of bad proofreading. They hurried out a new edition which put most - though not all, it was later revealed - of the offending passages in quotations with footnotes.

Most literary critics added that the originality of the bulk of the book is unaffected by the changes. They continue to call it an audacious, stimulating work concerning the role of time in history. Still, with important local elections coming in March, Mr. Mitterrand can only hope the public doesn't read too much into Mr. Attali's faux pasm.

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