San Francisco — As a newcomer to San Francisco from Montreal, Marie Galanti thought volunteering her time at a failing, gossipy French-language newspaper would be a good way to meet the Francophones and Francophiles of the Bay Area.
''It wasn't,'' Ms. Galanti says. ''It was just a lot of work.'' Eight years later, she finds the newspaper business is still a lot of work. But her time is no longer a gratuity. Today, as publisher of Le Journal Francais d'Amerique, she has turned the paper away from a provincial focus - and probable demise - to make it the largest French-language newspaper published in the United States.
Together with editor Anne Prah-Perochon (also a former volunteer, and a native of Tours, France) Ms. Galanti has reoriented the Journal Francais into a biweekly account of the news from France. The two have capitalized on the tie many American Francophones feel to their second tongue, on the acknowledged snob appeal of France, and on the popularity of French in foreign-language classes. And they have developed a small but devoted readership that includes officials in French President Francois Mitterrand's Elysee Palace.
This month the two Francophones embark on another publishing venture: a flashy English-language magazine called France Today. Initially appearing twice a year with articles by noted Frenchmen on the home of the Concorde, the Ariane rocket, and the Bic pen, the magazine is set to become a quarterly in 1986.
''The two publications exemplify the two sides of France we want to show,'' Ms. Galanti says. Her point is played out in two prints beside her desk. One is a lithograph of old Paris; the other a satellite photo of the City of Lights. ''The one you could put together on your kitchen table,'' she says. ''The other is a slick, forward-looking publication from the beginning.''
There was nothing forward-looking about Le Califor-nien Publishing Company when transplants Galanti and Prah-Perochon - both French teachers - entered its doors in 1976. Its newspaper, Le Californien, was the last of a long line of French-language papers published here since the gold rush. Its days appeared numbered.
''It was oriented to (San Francisco's) old French community, featuring such big news items as who had won the turkey at the French hospital raffle,'' says Ms. Galanti. ''Unfortunately, (the) numbers (of readers) were not increasing - it seemed as though every day we received cancellations, as readers passed on.''
Paid circulation had dipped to 300 when the opportunity came to buy Le Californien. The new editor and publisher wasted no time in redirecting the paper toward a younger readership by featuring news, travel, culture, and food in France. Students and teachers of French in the Western states were targeted, and bundles of papers were dropped off at French films and restaurants.
That tactic yielded promising results. Yet it soon became apparent that the newspaper was generating interest across the US. At that point, in 1979, the decision was made to give the growing publication a new name.
''I had thought Le Californien would sell anywhere, sort of like The New Yorker,'' the paper's publisher says. ''But it turned out that even if they liked the product but lived in Illinois, they didn't want to buy it.''
To find a new name, the editors polled the readers - a practice still used regularly which no doubt contributes to the paper's intimate, folksy feeling. They received hundreds of responses, but, says Ms. Galanti, Journal Francais d'Amerique ''kept coming through.''
Since the name change in 1979, the paper has grown to a paid circulation of 25,000. Only 15 percent of readers are French natives; the preponderance are Americans with a special liking for France. ''We're the Petite Boulangerie of the media,'' says Ms. Prah-Perochon, referring to a new French-style bakery chain in California.
The Journal Francais offices here do not have the feel or fragrance of a bakery, but their casual air and comfortable clutter do suggest a cottage industry. Located in an old Victorian house (in a section once considered a slum but now gentrified and dubbed Divisadero Heights), the newspaper's headquarters employs eight people.
News from France is culled from Agence France-Presse, other publications, and freelancers in France. Both editor and publisher write articles, with Ms. Prah-Perochon's column on old Paris a favorite. The paper also has correspondents in New York and Los Angeles who generally file dispatches on French cultural events.
But occasionally the paper snags interviews with big French names - as when President Mitterrand visited California in March, and when Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac attended this summer's Olympic Games. ''It's much easier for us to get at French personalities outside of France,'' says Ms. Galanti. ''We are able to interview people we probably couldn't get near in France. Here, (actress and film director) Jeanne Moreau called us!''
With the Journal Francais well established, the staff found itself hunting for a new challenge. And the answer came last October, when the weekly copy of L'Express, the French newsmagazine, arrived. It was a special issue on the US, with most articles written by Americans.
''We thought, 'That's what we should do,' '' says Ms. Galanti, ''present timely and important features on France, mostly by French writers, to American readers.''
One year later, the first issue of France Today is about to hit newsstands, with articles by ABC-TV correspondent Pierre Salinger; Jacques Fauvet, former publisher of Le Monde; and French historian Regine Pernoud. Topics include the French Socialists at midterm, saving Mont Saint-Michel, and France's technological gamble.
Both publisher and editor say they expect to sell half of the 100,000 copies of the magazine's first printing, with other copies given away at French civilization courses, restaurants, and airline terminals - a tactic that worked well with Le Journal Francais.
The two women admit their publications benefit from the fascination many Americans have for France. ''There is a snob appeal, an image among Americans of le bon vivre (the good life),'' Ms. Galanti says. ''We realize France is a fashionable item.''
And has Le Journal Francais garnered any attention in France? ''The Elysee (the French president's official residence) has a subscription, although they don't pay for it,'' says Ms. Prah-Perochon, deferentially. Then she brightens with a line that marks journalists everywhere: ''And of course my parents are enthusiastic readers.''