The French? Individuals. Diverse individuals--intricately related to one another and to the patchwork that is France. Thus, British historian Zeldin carries forth into the present the broad sweep and minute scrutiny of his magisterial, multi-volume social history, France 1848-1945. The book is set up, slyly, like a tourist guide. (It is also speckled with French cartoons of French foibles.) Under stock headings--""How to tell them apart,"" ""How to make sense of their language""--Zeldin does more than spoof stereotypes, and expose stereotypical thinking: he draws forth the stories of individual Frenchmen (no gender-neutral equivalent exists) and thus bares what can only be called the human condition, its common qualities and local inflections. ""The French probably have more interesting things to say about what it means to be human,"" Zeldin remarks, ""than about what it means to be French."" To their testimony, he brings microscopic historical knowledge--the beret marked the Frenchman only from 1923 to the 1950s, ""the age of Renoir""--and transcending historical vision: 18th-century France ""held a place in the world which was not altogether different from that later assumed by America, the asylum of free men, the source of amazing new opportunities. . . ."" Today, lacking berets or universal ideals, what distinguishes the French? Their language; their food--though diminishingly; but not their chic (""there is French taste, and French good taste"") or their sex lives (Brigitte Bardot, Yves Montand, the commonality). Far more intriguing is their nonconformity to type. One of Zeldin's most eloquent subjects is the drop-out diplomat, contented for some years as a carpenter (though his family round the conviviality trying), who ""still feels the need for more adventure"": the Utopian strain, and the restlessness, appears in others. There is much intercourse with things American, and fine adjustments to regionalism. It is a rich, nuanced portrait--peering into education, medical practices, religion, ""the revolt of 1968."" At the close, Zeldin considers the identity of Sanche de Gramont/Ted Morgan. Highly civilized, highly readable.