LAST fall, several French publications chided the American public for beating itself into a froth over the issue of women reporters in professional football locker rooms, at a time when the country faced a budget deadlock at home and a deepening crisis in the Middle East. With expiration of the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, and with France a key Western player in a conflict that could erupt into war at any time, the French are in an uproar of their own - over yet one more proposal for reform of spelling in the French language.
Which proves that the French take their language as seriously as Americans take their football.
No fewer than five French Nobel prize winners - in economics, physics, medicine, and literature - came out last week in opposition to the proposed reforms. Many of France's most illustrious writers and thinkers have joined in. Prime Minister Michel Rocard, whose government initiated the latest reform, has taken a position on the topic (very much in favor), as has President Fran,cois Mitterrand (less so).
``This reform is not absurd,'' Mr. Mitterrand recently told journalists anxious for his perspective. Any changes in spelling must remain ``prudent'' and ``respect the etymological power of words,'' he added. Noting, however, that he had personally reviewed the proposed changes, the French president offered this tantalizing observation without further explanation: ``I was a little frightened by what I saw, and I saved some accents.''
To some, the controversy may seem like a lot of spilled ink for an accent. Slated to disappear in most cases is the circumflex, the ``little hat'' that generally indicates a lost letter, as in for^et, and some double consonants and hyphens. A handful of new rules would be introduced to simplify plurals and past participles.
Mr. Rocard says the reform would involve no more than 1,500 words. He also defends the simplification as necessary for making French accessible to high-tech projects for electronic language translation.
To the French, however, tinkering with the language is no light-hearted matter: It is akin to denying their past - all those hours spent in an unforgiving primary school learning the secrets of proper French orthography. For those who see the word for^et and remember that the accent indicates the lost ``s'' of the Anglo-Saxons' ``forest,'' eliminating that accent is tantamount to rewriting history.
In an era of confusion born of blurring national borders and an integrating Europe, of unease over a reunited Germany and France's place in the world, the reform pierces the French concept of national identity.
The French Academy, established in the 17th century to protect the French language and guide its evolution, finds itself at the heart of the controversy. The august organization founded by Cardinal Richelieu spent its first meeting of the new year last week in what one member reported were ``passionate discussions'' on the reform, but no official opinion was made public. Another meeting is scheduled for today, when a secret vote could be taken.
The reform's supporters point out that the new spellings would not be imposed on anyone. Still, the government's intention is that they be taught in the schools, starting in September.
At the Saint Lambert public elementary school in Paris, third-grade teacher Youenn Goasdou'e says he doesn't know all the reform's specifics, but agrees that ``we have to simplify [spelling] - there are too many absurdities.''
To the Academy members who argue that quirky spellings were good enough for past generations, he responds: ``They didn't have to succeed in preparing every single child of a very diverse population to stay on through high school, but we are expected to.''
Michel Tobelen, Mr. Goasdou'e's principal, is sympathetic to that last argument, yet still he demurs as a ``man who loves words.'' ``It's our cultural heritage they're going to bury,'' he says.