He is President Mitterrand's closest, most trusted, most influential adviser. No one visits the French chief of state without his consent. Jacques Attali is a five foot, bespectacled economist, historian, and philosopher. His super-brilliance in a country generously endowed with intellectual gifts awes his critics and rivals . . . and annoys some of the Socialist Party's faithful who suspect his unorthodox views and his contempt for what he considers narrow, obsolete political notions.
The son of lower-middle-class Algerian Jews, he quickly rose up the French scholarly ladder through his books and lectures on megatrends of the economy and on the evolution of societies at large. He attached himself to Francois Mitterrand in 1974 when the leader of the reborn Socialist Party made his first and unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
To his critics he is a ''dreamer'' - or, worse, a modern Machiavelli. Conservatives describe him as just another particularly gifted, Parisian leftist intellectual. On the left, many feel uncomfortable with his distain for Marxism and for worn socialist concepts.
By his own admission - confirmed in a private talk with the Monitor - his purpose in life and in government is to analyze the deeper roots of the industrial world's crisis; to try to define the impact of automation, of the new information-based economies; to examine the emergence of the Pacific Basin, with Japan and the US West Coast at its core, as the world center of economic-political power.
Attali admits to having no political ambitions and no taste for power. While he feels elated to have a chance to translate ideas into facts, he considers his role in government to be but a parenthesis in his life as writer and thinker.
As he more than once told bemused US bankers in private talks in New York, present-day capitalism exacerbates individual narcissism, loneliness, and mental passivity. In order to avoid this extreme alienation, Attali thinks that new forms of democracy must be invented. These would enable individuals to make fundamental cultural choices and thus enjoy genuine freedom.
He believes in basic reform, not in revolution. ''Revolution'' is provided nowadays, as he sees it, by the computer, by biogenetics, by satellite communications, by the emergence of giants like Nigeria, Brazil, and Mexico on the world scene.
French socialism, as he defines it, aims not at restricting individual liberties and at widening the role of the state, but at encouraging the state to play a more dynamic role now in certain key areas (high-tech investments, cultural and scientific developments) in order to strengthen and widen individual freedom in the future.
Unmitigated capitalism leads not to diversity but to conformity, Attali says. And he says he wants for his compatriots, more than anything else, more diversity in their values, their criteria, and their life styles - not just in consumer choices.
People should feel free, he says, to be successful in business if they wish to. But they should also be able to seek fulfillment in pursuits that are not rewarded by material wealth and comfort.