PARIS. — Paris -- For many years it seemed that the truth about what went on in France was that it wasn't what the French said was going on. Pessimism was fundamental to the serious Frenchman's political stance, thus it was essential for him to deplore the economic and industrial performance of his country and scoff at the allegedly ill-informed admiration of France by foreigners.
West Germany and the United States were held to possess the sobriety, diligence and quality of performance France could never hope to match. This was all rather hallucinatory to the American or West German actually acquainted with contemporary France, which looked to them extraordinarily dynamic and successful. However, the French recognized a certain perversity that exists in the national temperament, impelling the French intermittently to destroy their successes.
A member of President Francois Mitterrand's Socialist Party has characterized the president's apparent political strategy today as ''morbid.'' The word is apt. That strategy would appear to be to destroy the Socialist Party itself, by reinstalling proportional 22 voting for the next legislative elections.
This would cause the party to disintegrate into the factions from which it was formed two decades ago, since each group, under the proportional system, could hope to become an independent parliamentary force with a claim on cabinet posts in new coalitions.
The right would also be split by such a move and ecologists and the rightist National Front would be strengthened in the National Assembly. It would take France back toward the Third and Fourth Republic systems of volatile coalitions.
That is what appeals to Mr. Mitterrand, a veteran of the Fourth Republic and an expert in its forms of intrigue. He would expect to be able to create from these new rival groups a ''presidential coalition'' government, no longer specifically Socialist, thus sparing himself the humiliations of another term of ''cohabitation'' with a rightist parliamentary majority, the prospect which polls say he now faces. A parliamentary election must take place within the next year and a half, whereas Mr. Mitterrand's presidential term does not expire until 1995.
Mr. Mitterrand has been president for 10 and a half years. His policies have proved successful; the popularity of the Socialists has consistently been greater than that of its conservative opponents. But success itself is a public bore; certainly 10 years of it. The public becomes discontent with old faces, as well as with yesterday's achievements, at a time when the future seems unpromising.
Take the economy. Since 1983 France has followed policies of the utmost sobriety and orthodoxy, restricting wage rises, building competitive abilities, exporting successfully, borrowing sparsely. The result is an extremely healthy national economy. -- French inflation is now the lowest in the Western world, below Germany, Japan and the U.S. during the past 12-month period.
Public borrowing and the government deficit are lower than in any of the major industrial countries, other than Japan. The franc is solid. Growth has been real, although declining: 2.75 percent last year after 3.75 percent the two preceding years; 1.5 percent forecast for this year. Competitiveness and export performance figures show France above the European Community average.
But competitiveness has been purchased through a very successful wage-restraint policy and a rate of unemployment that is second highest among the seven leading economies. Only Italy is higher. The reputedly rumbustious French work force has taken this, consoled by very high levels of social insurance, expecting to emerge from the tunnel of austerity into a new popular prosperity.
However the tunnel seems to have no end, or else it is very dark outside; and hardly a day now seems to go by without still more announcements of firings, or of planned work-force shrinkages, all to make industries still more competitive -- at the workers' expense.
And it now seems that people have had enough. The government is under pressure from the Socialist left to reflate to create jobs and from the traditional right, which has always liked cheap money, to devalue the franc. A renewed endorsement of austerity this week by President Mitterrand seemed unlikely to relieve the pressure. It served rather to demonstrate the extent to which Mr. Mitterrand now has been forced to become his own prime minister, which is not the way the Fifth Republic is supposed to work.
There has been talk of calling Jacques Delors, popular head of the European Commission, back from Brussels to become prime minister, but one must ask why he would want to come. Wise politicians do not board sinking ships, if they have an alternative mode of transport. Mr. Delors can stay where he is until 1993 and have a better chance of succeeding Mr. Mitterrand.