France puts a saintly nix on Christmas discounts for unimpressed shoppers

For the French, Christmas means much the same as for Americans: gifts, a family gathering, and perhaps a goose or other fowl. Still, the French look at the holiday just a little bit differently.

Take shopping. Americans appreciate discounts. But when Carrefour, a large department store chain, recently began taking out full-page advertisements in newspapers showing how its prices were lower than its rivals, no one applauded.

The government launched an investigation. Rival store owners were even madder. One had his employees raid the local Carrefour, buying out the entire stock of discounted items.

The problem is that comparative advertising, common in the United States, is illegal here. It promotes unfair competition and false claims, the law says. Behind this legislation lies the mistrust the French have always had for unbridled capitalism.

Retailing here has traditionally been controlled by small tradesmen operating behind the protection of a de facto system of price fixing. Even though department stores and supermarkets have made inroads during the past 20 years, prices continue to be regulated, informally by retailers and often formally by the government.

So accustomed are French consumers to high prices that they seem distinctly unimpressed by Carrefour's unprecedented efforts on their behalf. Most interviewed said the controversial commercials had not changed their buying habits.

''Bofm,'' one shopper grunted. ''I just came here more because the store is on my way to work.'' 'Cato' unmasked

What attracts the French in the holiday season is a more subtle, literary-influenced publicity campaign. Intellectuals are the country's most admired class, and Frenchmen love nothing better than an intellectual provocation.

This is the only way to explain the recent furor over the unmasking of ''Cato.''

The author of two recent books of political commentary chose to hide his identity under the name of the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, Cato.

The two books were remarkable not for their brilliance, but for their lack of identifiable ideology. ''Cato'' claimed to talk ''the language of the masters,'' and he created a sensation precisely because the ideologically obsessed French could not place him with either the right or the left.

''Cato'' hunting soon became a national pastime. Name after name was put forward as the author. They ranged from aides to former Prime Minister Raymond Barre to aides of President Francois Mitterrand. But the identity of ''Cato'' remained a mystery.

With Christmas approaching, ''Cato'' evidently decided he needed one additional burst of publicity. So he announced he would unmask himself on a television talk show.

On the appointed day, a statue of the Stoic Roman philosopher was placed center stage. Then lights flashed, credits rolled - and a relatively undistinguished journalist named Andre Bercoff sat down in front of the statue.

Most Paris dailies carried the story on Page 1 the next day - with a banner headline. Tennis star leaves France

Much more than in Anglo-Saxon countries, life here is dominated by family ties. Children often live at home well into their 20s, and many a Frenchman lives in a world where his best friends are cousins, uncles, and grandparents.

Naturally then, Christmas is celebrated by a family feast at home. This largely explains why the French were recently so shocked by the decision of Yannick Noah to move to New York.

Last June, tennis player Yannick Noah became the first Frenchman since 1946 to capture the country's national tennis championship. Overnight, the native of Cameroon became a national hero.

But being a national hero at age 23 is not easy. Last week, Noah called a press conference to announce he was moving to New York in search of some privacy.

To a shocked France, he broke down in tears and said, ''It won't be easy to leave my house, my family, and my friends . . . but the pressure is so intense that I can hardly sleep at night.''

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