Contemporary France as seen by Bernstein (From the Center of the Earth, 1982), who here neatly mixes broad generalizations with personal anecdotes, and grand themes--such as France's passing from the center of the world stage--with amusing trivialities (e.g., that the French keep more pets than do other Europeans). The former Paris bureau chief (and current national cultural correspondent) for The New York Times begins with a look at ""La France Profonde,"" the world of rural France. France is still the most pastoral of the major industrial nations, he points out, but the rural economy is stagnating and young people are flocking to the cities--particularly Paris, which is France as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned. But Paris' role as a dominant world capital is fading too. Bernstein portrays the French as being quite conscious of their cultural and political decline, of becoming a ""net importer of intellectual product."" But with this, he says, French society is growing more mature; the country is finally overcoming its legacy of civil strife and evolving into a more sober, consensual society. Deep contradictions remain, however: class divisions are still evident; love of grandeur and a statist political culture coexist with deep skepticism about authority; an enduring attachment to Catholicism and aristocratic elegance clashes with radical republicanism and anticlericalism. (Unfortunately, Bernstein neglects to discuss the role of French women.) Less persuasive as a psychological primer on the French (do their fast driving habits really stem from a ubiquitous insecurity?) than as an entertaining survey of the French life-style--the food, the mistresses, the love of aesthetics.