Paris — The first Bush-Dukakis debate began at 1 a.m. on the French television channel, TF1. But after only a few words had been exchanged, the picture flashed back to the Paris newsroom.
``This debate is not too exciting,'' muttered newscaster Jean-Michel Lelliot, without evident embarrassment. ``Let's go to the Olympics.''
No doubt about it, this year's American elections, usually the topic of heated caf'e discussions and massive press coverage, have failed to fire France's collective imagination.
The main reason is that the French say the results do not matter much. Governmental officials say they could live comfortably with either Michael Dukakis or George Bush. Neither candidate offers a radical change in American policy toward Europe, they say.
And both promise to guard the present state of good will between Paris and Washington.
``How do you separate `Bushkakis?,''' asks Jacques Renard in an article in the newsweekly L'Express. He offered no answer.
No polls on the election have been taken, but when pressed, most French officials say they favor Mr. Bush.
Their argument is simple: It is better to have a known quantity than an unknown quantity. Bush has visited Paris many times as vice-president and met with all the French leaders. Dukakis never has come, although President Fran,cois Mitterrand met him last month in New York.
``We know Bush, we really don't know Dukakis,'' says one French diplomat, who recently returned from Washington. ``It's a hard election for us to figure out.''
What confounds the French is the contest's lack of identifiable ideology.
French political analysts have also voiced concern about the large United States budget and trade deficits, and about the social costs of what they see as ``harsh'' free-market economics. In a debate organized last week by the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur on the ``Reagan years,'' the participants drew somber conclusions.
Economist Jean Pierre Ferri worried about ``the jungle mentality'' of hard-edged capitalism. Sociologist Michel Crozier, while noting ``the great success'' in the US of job creation, criticized many of the new jobs ``as precarious and badly paid.'' The ultimate worry for both was that an individualistic America would not be able to defend itself against a teamwork-minded Japan.
In this argument, little was heard about the advantages or disadvantages of Bush or Dukakis. At TF1, which canceled the debate, press attach'e Marie Charbonier offered excuses for the cancellation. She explained that demand for Olympic coverage simply had been too strong. On election night, she promised full coverage, including special features on US society.
``We know the American election is important,'' she says. ``But remember, it isn't like an election in France.''