Paris — Europe is alive and well, despite all the premature obituaries. And it even has an inner dynamic and identity that may just now be ''ripening.'' This is the message a reporter gets in Paris from a number of academics as well as from officials at the presidential palace and the foreign and European ministries.
This view of a small political elite contrasts sharply both with European public apathy about Europe and with the current American image of Europe as exhausted, unwilling to defend itself, and technologically sluggish.
It is dismissed by some observers as wishful thinking. But it represents a significant school of thought.
Some of the reasons for the quickened French interest in Europe over the past year or so are negative - including the desire to refute that somber American concept of Europessimism. Other reasons are more positive, including a strong sense of European cultural unity. Together they have produced, in the words of one official, ''the most European-minded president and government (in Paris) in the past 25 years.''
A second official, concurring in this judgment, adds that the very absence of high public hopes about Europe at this point is an advantage. It allows for quiet step-by-step evolution without raising unrealistic expectations that could quickly backfire in disillusionment.
A third official expressed the conviction that the ''yelling over groceries'' that has so embittered European Community (EC) relations is now over - and that this clears the way for building European cooperation in other fields.
Certainly President Francois Mitterrand's determination to ''relaunch Europe'' is evident in his actions as well as his rhetoric. During his stint as president of the European Council of Ministers in the first half of this year, he pressed for greater European political union and endorsed a proposal for a treaty to this end. More immediately, he began weaning the European Council - the informal system of bimonthly summits of European Community heads of government or state - away from the paralyzing veto right that Paris itself had initially insisted on.
He accepted, at last, Britain's claim to permanent membership in Europe at the same time, it would appear from leaked British government memorandums, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher too accepted this premise. Instead of yielding to the temptation to wash his hands of London at the end-of-June summit in Fontainebleau, Mitterrand negotiated - with West German help and bankrolling - a compromise settlement to the five-year battle over British contributions to the EC budget.
Mitterrand also agreed in principle to a Jan. 1, 1986, date for Spanish and Portuguese entry into the EC. He did this despite French-Spanish clashes over agriculture and fish, and because of his wish to help a fellow Socialist government complete Madrid's transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Further, Mitterrand has conspicuously intensified French-German security consultations. He has expressed a self-conscious European identity in his dealings with Moscow, Washington, and Tokyo. And he gave bureaucratic form to this supranational consciousness by establishing a European minister in Paris distinct from the French Foreign Ministry.
At this point no one seems to have very concrete ideas about how best to proceed from this foundation toward the declared goal of political union. But everyone agrees that the key is French-West German cooperation - and that this cooperation is already remarkably intimate.
Today the Socialist Mitterrand and the conservative West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl are working together even more closely than did conservative French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Ex-Chancellor Schmidt's surprise call at the end of June for a merging of French and West German armed forces under French leadership is a measure of just how warm relations have become between these erstwhile enemies in three bloody wars in the last 115 years.
It is in this key relationship with West Germany that French optimism - and alarm - about Europe is most evident. The immediate spur to Mitterrand's embrace of Bonn in late 1982 was French worry about a loss of West German nerve vis-a-vis the Soviet Euromissile threat. Paris feared that West Germany's Social Democrats and peace movement would prevent the conservative Bonn government from implementing NATO's counterdeploy-ment of missiles intended as a display of European resolve not to be bullied by the Soviets.
If that happened, the French thought, there was no telling how far West Germany might go in the direction of neutralism and nationalism - or what concessions Bonn might be willing to make to Moscow in hopes of reunifying West and East Germany. French officials may not have expressed this concern publicly, but they made no secret of it privately.
A high-ranking French official at that time went so far as to tell journalists that the only glue keeping West Germany stably in the Western alliance was economic growth. When economic success faltered, he continued - and West Germany was then already in its third year of negative or zero growth - the Germans might go crazy.
The fledgling conservative Bonn government, confident of its own control of events, found the French suspicions grossly exaggerated. But it welcomed the new French enthusiasm for Europe, whatever the causes. The Kohl government got itself reelected with a decisive majority in March of 1983 and did carry out the first NATO missile deployments at the end of the year without polarizing the country.
French elite concern abated. And average Frenchmen - who probably never were as nervous about Germany as the elite - have matter-of-factly been telling opinion pollers this year that they favor common French-German defense (63 percent) and even French-German political unification (69 percent).
If the acute French fears about Germany have subsided to no more than the usual chronic doubts - and if France has rotated out of the institutional prod of being president of the European Council - what incentives remain for continued Parisian interest in Europe?
For that matter, what motivations remain for other countries in a Europe in which only about 60 percent of those eligible bothered to vote in the EC-wide elections for the European Parliament last month? For France the first and most important incentive would seem to be Mitterrand's personal commitment to Europe, not only philosophically but also politically. Mitterrand attended the first European Congress at The Hague in 1948, and he is said to have been convinced by his own wartime experience that a united Europe was the only possible solution to Europe's tendency to commit fratricide every generation or so.
Echoing this conviction, one French official notes, ''I personally believe now you have elements for a European renewal in terms of perception, ambitions, and creation. The difficulty right now is to try to shape again something around this objective. Conditions are not the same as in the '50s. War is far away. We do not have this formidable (potential) for economic growth, which was a fantastic bonus then (or) the very clear-cut cold war, the very direct threat. It's much more complex now.''
Yet, the official continues, Europe faces ''a series of threats . . . and this is felt. The learning process, the learning curve of the crisis in Europe, now gives some reason to shape some kind of European ambition. No country, no special national value, is able to sustain this kind of move. So I strongly believe today one can be committed, convinced, European-minded, with as many and as good justifications as in the '50s.''
This was not the case in the '60s or the '70s, the official goes on. Those decades saw a succession of events working against such a European-minded attitude, including the controversial beginning of detente, a Gaullist approach to international relations, Watergate, the Iran hostage-taking, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
''Now,'' he concludes, however, ''something is ripening.''
The official describes part of the ripening as the everyday interweaving of European societies in such a thorough way that, for instance, ''a Danish baker takes his vacation in Montpellier (France) and gets all the local'' medical and other social protection.
''We are no longer practicing diplomacy between these 10 countries (of the EC),'' he says. ''We have an interconnection of very complex bureaucratic systems. There is no kind of diplomatic mediation. The societies are in constant (direct) communication.''
This spontaneous societal impulse to European union is reinforced today by compelling political and economic prods to European integrity. These include the need for joint defense against recent Soviet attempts to dictate European arms decisions, against American attempts to prescribe European economic and military policy, and against Japanese attempts to beat out European technology in world markets.
Again, a Paris official: ''We collectively felt the pressure of the (Soviets) this year. We felt very insistent and quite brutal pressure'' treating Europeans as if they had a lesser right to security and were only ''victims, prey of the gods.''
For now, he says, the Soviets have failed to block the NATO missile stationing. But ''this is a long-lasting ordeal we will have for years and years. There is not just a need for some (short) time of will and determination. We have to prepare for a long-lasting intellectual, psychological, and political fight with a partner, an adversary, whose main ambition concerning Europe is to reduce our future, to shape our future in some way or another. Our existence is at stake.''
On an entirely different scale, several Frenchmen interviewed also noted Europe's need either to loosen dependence on American policy swings and American industrial muscle - or, obversely, to adjust to declining American interest in Europe.
Here European arms cooperation is regarded as essential for Europe to hold its own against the American giant. The next generation of military helicopter will thus be developed by France and Germany in tandem. And these two nations along with Britain, Italy, and Spain have just agreed to feasibility studies for a joint fighter plane for the 1990s. Paris also is lobbying for a joint European military reconnaissance and communication satellite. In addition, the common European interest in averting any repetition of America's application of extraterri-torial control over European firms as in 1982's Siberian gas pipeline feud is seen as requiring European solidarity.
Some nongovernmental security analysts go even further in arguing for European autonomy from Washington. They contend that Europe must move away from American NATO concepts of war-fighting (whether nuclear or conventional) and resort instead to the old deterrent threat of nuclear retaliation.
This is not the policy of the Mitterrand government. Paris has moved far toward making more credible its commitment to aid in conventional defense of West Germany. This stops short of reintegrating France into the NATO military command that Charles de Gaulle stalked out of in the 1960s. But it does include conspicuous preparation of France's new rapid deployment force for intervention in Germany as well as in Africa. And it includes stepped-up joint military exercises with allies, especially West Germany.
All this suggests that Paris is resolved to press toward European political union without waiting for the slowest members of Europe to share this urge. It may have dropped for now the concept of a Europe of ''deux vitesses'' (''two speeds'') vis-a-vis Britain. But it is determined to proceed with greater defense coordination in the revived Western European Union - and with greater political coordination in the European Council.
As far as France in concerned, it will then be up to the British either to keep abreast of the others or to be left behind if it insists on giving too much preference to the Anglo-Saxon special relationship.
Similarly, it will be up to the foot-dragging Danes and Greeks to decide whether they want to join the seven-member WEU. And the Norwegians will face the same choice between Scandinavian and European identity.
Whether Paris itself will eventually choose a French or a European identity as today's easy theorizing compels tomorrow's tough trade-offs in priorities is perhaps a trickier question. Schmidt's revolutionary initiative about merging French and West German armed forces - made after prior consultation with Mitterrand - poses this question concretely for the first time.
Such a merger of armed forces - and even serious consideration of such a move - would require the French to yield up their beloved ambiguity in defense strategy and their insistence on splendid last-minute sovereignty in any D-Day decision to defend West Germany. It would require extension of the French nuclear shield to West Germany, at least to some degree.
It would also require enough residual anxiety about the Germans to goad the French into subsuming their centuries-old national glory to supranational 20 th-century security. Yet at the same time it would require enough abating of the historical French aversion to the Germans to allow the two to work in daily proximity.
That these questions can now even be asked suggests indeed that ''something is ripening'' in Europe.