France has a frugal summer and newly modest President

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

France has always prided itself on being grand, but this summer grandeur is out of style. As austerity bites into incomes, everybody is thinking smaller, and patience is in short supply.

The government is leading the way. Last year, the Socialists staged a huge nocturnal military pageant to celebrate Bastille Day. This year, although tanks and troops still rumbled down the Champs Elysees, the theater was played down.

The show was in the morning and the emphasis was on commemorating France's security forces in Lebanon, less on the ''greatness'' of the French nation.

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This did not please everybody - especially President Francois Mitterrand's growing number of opponents.

Some demonstrators made a fuss at the parade, and 34 of them were arrested for ''disturbing the peace.''

What had they done? Had they beaten up police or physically disrupted the parade? No, they had whistled.

This is not to be taken to mean that Mr. Mitterrand is unable to take criticism. Lately, he has stunned the country by coming down off his Gaullian perch, high above the fray, to try to reestablish his ''common'' touch.

First, he gave an interview on a commercial radio station over croissants and cafe au lait. To a public used to seeing its President on state television surrounded by the baroque opulence of his Elysee Palace office, the informal setting was a revelation.

Last week, the public was shocked even more when a small Roman Catholic weekly ran a piece quoting the President in a series of self-critical admissions that Mr. Mitterrand had made to one of the reporters after that breakfast interview.

The article, entitled ''What Mitterrand didn't say on (radio station) Europe No. 1,'' contained the President's most candid remarks about his presidential record:

''I was wrong not to devalue in May 1981, on taking office,'' Mr. Mitterrand said. ''Perhaps we dreamed a little in 1981. We underestimated the duration of the international crisis, just as we overestimated the goodwill of the Americans.''

He concluded, ''I was excited by victory. We were all intoxicated.''

At the same time as his confessions were made public, another of Mitterrand's dreams came crashing down. The President had hoped to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in spectacular fashion by playing host to the 1989 World's Fair in Paris.

But his chief political opponent, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, forced him to scuttle the plans. Mr. Chirac was afraid that the exhibition would cost the city too much, and that the four years of preparatory work for the fair would disrupt life in the capital.

In the end, Mitterrand decided not to force the fair on the reluctant mayor. Through a spokesman, he said that it showed the government was really serious about its decentralization plans to increase the power of locally elected mayors.

He also tried to leave the impression that Chirac was a scheming politician who had blocked a job that would have given France a needed boost in self-esteem.

Despite the setback, Mitterrand remains committed to constructing several other architectural megaprojects, including a new rock-concert stadium, a new opera house, a new science park, and even a new futuristic Arc de Triomphe, patterned after the 1836 version.

''During the 1970s, the government kept saying how France was small and couldn't do anything grand,'' a top Elysee official said in an interview. ''Even in austerity it is good that a country has ambition. These projects will give Frenchmen pride in their civilization and confidence for the future.''

But with the fair being axed, the future of the other ''prestige'' projects also seems doubtful. Mayor Chirac has estimated their cost at 30 billion francs ($3.9 billion) and says the city will not contribute one centime.

None of the projects has yet been canceled outright, the Elysee official said , but he admitted that further jousting with the mayor and financing difficulties could delay construction. ''We don't just impose these designs on the city.''

Meanwhile, Paris will continue to have to make due with its old ''grande dame ,'' the Eiffel Tower. Built for the 1889 World's Fair as a symbol of France's industrial progress, it has just this week received the final touches on a long process of renovation, and its 100-millionth visitor is expected in August.

It just goes to show that there is some grandeur left here after all.

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