AS the French celebrate their national patriotic holiday, Bastille Day, today, with the traditional military parade down the Champs 'Elys'ees, commentators around the world will use the occasion to ask, in the words of Georges Clemenceau, ``Where is France? What has become of the French?'' In the United States, where the French are not particularly popular, France is still seen through the prism of 1940 - as a country frequently on the brink of collapse like a house of cards. Whether the news media are focusing on student riots (as last December) or terrorism (as last September) or the trial of Klaus Barbie (as in May), the implicit assumption is that France is drawn constantly by ``the morbid attraction of the abyss,'' to use Charles de Gaulle's famous phrase.
The less theatrical reality is that with only four presidents in 30 years, France has a record of political stability unmatched by any other major Western nation. In military terms, far from being a flighty dilettante, France is probably the only major Western nation with the political will to sustain a protracted military intervention, as in Chad.
So Bastille Day, 1987, is a time for the French once again to celebrate a year of prophesied disasters that never materialized. The most notable case in point is provided by terrorism. Last year, the American media whipped themselves into a frenzied state over the supposed danger to American tourists in Europe. The result was a wave of holiday cancellations affecting Mediterranean countries, in particular. Yet when statistics were compiled at the end of the year, terrorist incidents in Europe had actually declined compared with 1985, a record year for American visits to the Old World.
France was particularly hard hit by publicity that followed a wave of bombings in Paris in September. French police forces were in total disarray, and the government was prepared to cave in to demands by any sleazy terrorist cell, American commentators told us. In fact, the French were making a major effort to tighten security, and since the beginning of this year it is the terrorists who are on the defensive. One example is Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, whom we were told no French court would dare convict, but who indeed was tried and sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
Similarly, R'egis Schleicher, a violent French radical, made headlines when he threatened his jurors with the retribution of ``proletarian justice'' and managed to scare several of them into withdrawing from his trial. Far from caving in, Premier Jacques Chirac's government simply changed the law, allowing Mr. Schleicher to be tried without a jury; the convicted ex-terrorist now joins a host of others serving lengthy terms.
Another specter that loomed on the French horizon during the past year was that of constitutional crisis. In March 1986, when a rightist parliamentary majority was elected to govern along with Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand, it was said that the constitution of the Fifth Republic could not cope. In fact, Mr. Mitterrand simply nominated Mr. Chirac, whose government assumed day-to-day management of the country, while Mitterrand maintained control over most elements of foreign and defense policies. Clich'es about a ``divided country'' notwithstanding, France enjoys perhaps a greater consensus on foreign and defense matters than any other major Western country.
One example of this consensus is in French policy vis-`a-vis the 22 Francophone nations of Africa. French support of Chad has allowed that country to resist successfully attempts by Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi to dominate it. In reality, the defeat inflicted on Colonel Qaddafi last spring by Chadian forces supported and supplied by France was far worse than anything Washington has so far managed to mete out.
Yet another sign that France is a nation relatively at ease with itself has been provided by the trial of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. Despite efforts by the lawyer of the former Lyon Gestapo chief to transform the Barbie trial into a cause c'el`ebre, French opinion has remained calm. There are several reasons for this, most notably the fact that the majority of French were not even born during the Occupation, as well as the fact the French schools have been dealing with the issue of collaboration dispassionately and objectively for several years. Thus, the notion that the trial would somehow ``tear France apart'' (as one prominent American writer said) has proved to be another case of media hyperbole.
But if France has managed to confront successfully Qaddafi, assorted terrorists, and its own past, there is one onslaught for which there may be no defense. Faced with high unemployment, even a government of neo-Gaullists jumped at the chance to provide a new site for Disneyland, that most notable purveyor of United States hegemony in popular entertainment. This is a change from several years ago, when the French National Assembly debated whether Disney's Goofy should be the mascot of the French national Olympic team. (Some deputies were heard to mutter that given the performance of some recent French teams, Goofy indeed would be an appropriate mascot.)
Can the nation of Descartes survive this new invasion by Goofy, Donald Duck, and friends? As de Gaulle used to say, ``The French can always surprise you.''
Kevin Michel Cap'e is a French-American writer who lives in Rome.