Carlyle once said that France was a despotism tempered by epigrams. Certain aspects of her despotism endure, notably de Gaulle and gastronomy, neither neglected in M. Nourissier's crosscurrent overview of his country, with his own flair for le bon mot (""Victor Hugo was not a mountain. He was a mountain range.""). How can one explain the inconsistent Frenchman any more readily than one can reconcile France's innate elegance and her indolent plumbing. And what qualities to choose for that apocryphal real Frenchman--commentator Nourissier's would be ""tolerance, frivolity, vulgarity, fatigue, enthusiasm"" and also contentiousness, laisser-aller, chauvinism. In the opening, firmer chapters, he indicates the upswing in present day France, astonishing even to the French after one futile war and one lost one. This is apparent in its new affluence (unstable as it may be) and its accelerating birthrate and youth kick. On the other hand ""with us the past is a habit"" and traditions are as well fortified as Carcassonne; so, in spite of earlier promiscuity, are marriages--and homes to the foreigner (although Nourissier interprets this as justified embarrassment--The Frenchman is a swinging spender, only outside). On he goes, and there's a discussion of schools, of the cities and Tout Paris versus the provinces, of types and tastes and present day aesthetic stasis, and of tourism as with ""all his greed and irony (he) holds the tourist at arm's length."" This may be what may keep this book from reaching the market, say, of The Italians since American-French amiability and vice versa is at a low. However the book is written with taste, intelligence and an undeluded reasonableness, which is both the charm and the cachet of the French.