But, despite this progressive panoply, France remains a deeply conservative country. Most of the moves to the left have been followed by a lurch to the right - from the Revolution, which ended in Napoleon's Empire, to the 1968 riots, which led to one of the biggest post-war conservative majorities in the National Assembly. This spring, after 14 years of presidential rule, Mr Mitterrand is almost certain to be succeeded by Gaullism's knight errant, Jacques Chirac.
It may be no coincidence that France was where the Manichaean heresy took deepest root in Western Europe with the Albigensian sect in the Middle Ages. A tradition of dualism has run through national life for centuries - wars of religion, state against Church, monarchy against republic, resistance and collaboration. As soon as one consumers' association is identified with the left, a right-wing rival springs up. In a small village, a socialist caf owner looks out from one side of the square, a right-wing rival from the other side.
Take one conclusion about the French and you can immediately come up with its contradiction. They firmly believe that their country is the best place to live, but they are among the world's biggest consumers of tranquillisers; they have worries on a grand metaphysical scale but find it difficult to take elementary precautions to stay alive like using contraceptives or driving carefully - both the Aids death rate and road fatalities are unusually high.
This is a country that regards small neighbourhood shops as part of its heritage, but pioneered out-of-town shopping centres. The biggest chain of little grocers, Flix Potin, is closing 248 of its shops - 40 mayors in the Paris area protested last week; their constituents still flock to the hypermarkets.
France without cafs would not be France, but the number of cafs has fallen from 200,000 to 50,000 over the past 35 years - and one survey this month showed that half the adult population never sets foot in one. This is a country famous for its love of eating, but the slice of incomes which its inhabitants spent on food fell from 33.3 per cent in 1960 to 18.6 per cent in 1993, while the proportion spent on housing doubled.
French governments of left and right are dedicated to the construction of Europe, but the Maastricht treaty was only narrowly approved in a national referendum, and there is no way that France is going to meet the Maastricht financial criteria in 1996. Ministers insist on the need to defend the national culture and language - by legislation if necessary. But one of the strengths of French culture has been its openness to outside influences and its appreciation, in particular, of American arts. And who are French politicians to talk about ring-fencing their language when they deploy invented Anglicisms such as the current phrase used to describe candidates who have changed their image: relook, as in "Balladur c'est relook" (Balladur has redesigned himself).
This, as every British tabloid or Mayle reader knows, is a race of garlic- chewing peasants who have probably never seen a washing machine. In fact, recent decades have seen a steady movement from the country to the towns, leading to the dsertification of large swathes of rural France (much to the joy of British, German and Dutch housebuyers). As for the supposed backwardness of France, one has only to look at the motorway network which has linked previously remote areas like the Auvergne with Paris, the high- speed TGV trains, the Minitel national data network, and the fact that the French stocked themselves with so many household machines in the 1960s that spending on consumer durables is now well down on what it was 30 years ago.
Yes, the French are a nation of often awkward individualists who hate queuing, relish quick-fire argument and have invented a whole subculture of ways to get round rules, known as systme D (for dbrouiller, to untangle). But they also have more respect for the state than anybody else in Western Europe. In Britain, the state is only invoked to be condemned in Thatcherite terms. In France, nobody in the current presidential campaign is more lyrical about the role of the state than Mr Chirac, who professes himself a great admirer of the Iron Lady. In English, the state comes with a lower case "s": in France, l'Etat merits capital respect.
A recent poll in Le Monde reported 87 per cent support for the proposition "The state should intervene more in the economic life of our country". Where else are mayors' offices decorated with the symbol of the republican state, the bust of Marianne - now available in four different styles, modelled on Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, a television interviewer and a model?
The conclusion that Le Monde drew from its poll was that what France wanted from the presidential election was a true "chief" for a true "State". This touches on a central nerve in French society and politics. The contradictions and paradoxes that run right through national life explain the need for such a father figure to reassure a perpetually worried country.
The uncertainties that assail the French can be traced back to the origins of the nation. Unlike Britain or Spain, France is not a clearly defined geographical entity on its vital 1,000-mile-plus eastern border. What separates a French citizen in Alsace from a German across the border? A stallholder in the Nice flower market feels more kinship with an Italian basil-grower from Genoa than with a miner from the north.
Nor was language a unifying force as early as it was in Germany or England. For centuries, the country was divided between those who spoke the langue d'ol in the northern half and the langue d'oc in the south. Up on a hillside in the Alpes de Haute Provence, an old farmer still uses only his local patois as he serves his illegal home-made absinthe.
Family configurations differ between the all-encompassing Mediterranean clans of Provence and the smaller nuclear patterns of the north. Paris received its boost out of the Middle Ages from the stimulus of the Protestant Low Countries and Germany: the south, and much of the west, remained traditional, and largely suspicious of the industrial revolution.
Two things held the nation together. From the top came the political will of its rulers - from the Capetian monarchs and the great unifying King Louis XI through the Jacobin centralisers of the Revolution to General de Gaulle. From below came the underlying pride of the French in being part of a great nation - a sentiment that was fanned into life by the revolutionaries of 1789, developed powerfully by Napoleon, and given new strength by victory in 1918.
It is a sentiment that de Gaulle drew on throughout his career. It is a sentiment invoked today by Mr Chirac in his calls for the defence of national republican values, a sign of how warmly his populist brand of right-wing politics has embraced the legacy of the storming of the Bastille, regicide and all. For the French, being part of le peuple franais is more than a demographic fact: it is an identity statement of political belonging.
If a chief is needed to hold everything together, France has not been badly served over the past half century. After the pathetic wartime figure of Marshal Ptain seeking to act as a grandfather for the occupied nation, De Gaulle proved a real father figure, as appropriate for his country and his times as Franklin Roosevelt was for his.
After the disarray of the Fourth Republic, De Gaulle shaped the Fifth Republic in his image, embuing the presidency with sweeping executive powers and a semi-monarchical status. His more down-to-earth successor, Georges Pompidou, made a fair job of carrying on the heritage. If the General was the imposing paternal presence, Pompidou was the benign uncle.
When Pompidou died in office in 1974, France turned to the brilliant young Valry Giscard d'Estaing, and then, in 1981, decided it had had enough of his brittle, increasingly patrician ways and elected Franois Mitterrand largely on the basis of his pledge to be a force tranquille, a leader who would be both a father to the nation and an instigator of change. The most persuasive election poster for this man who was promising widespread nationalisations, huge social reforms and the first left-wing presidency of the Fifth Republic showed him reassuringly posed against a soft-focus Burgundian countryside complete with rural church.
The repeated disappointments of Mr Mitterrand's actual performance after the unrealistic brio of his first year in office, the rising tide of scandals and the years of fiscal austerity and high unemployment have all toppled the aged, ill president from the pedestal where the French, whatever their political allegiance, expect to see their head of state. Above all, the wave of scandals involving national politicians, big business and local government, has severely sapped faith in public morality as private gain takes precedence over the ideals of fraternity proclaimed in the national motto. This spring, the French are looking for a chief who will bind their contradictory nation together after the final deceptions of the Mitterrand years and the social and political cleavages born in the 1980s, ranging from the high number of homeless and long-term young unemployed to the growth of the National Front.
One French politician seemed up to the job, but Jacques Delors decided not to run, partly for personal reasons, partly because he did not relish the thought of trying to rule with a right-wing majority against him in parliament. For a while, the French thought that the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, might fit the bill, but the election campaign has shown him to be lacking the necessary qualities. The Socialist, Lionel Jospin, appears ruled out by the unpopular heritage of the Mitterrand era.
That leaves the erratic, likeable but probably rather dangerous Mr Chirac. He is busy presenting himself as a true national unifier, a man who transcends left and right, a guardian of the great republican tradition. His record as a not very successful prime minister from 1974-76 and 1986-88 hardly inspires confidence.
Instead of calming down the nation, Jacques Chirac is likely to play to its nervy, vainglorious side. Whatever his dreams, he is not another De Gaulle, but a man who represents many of the less stable aspects of his country, and who glories in them - like the driver who, after a well- lubricated lunch, speeds down the outside lane flashing his lights and swearing at anybody who dares to keep within the speed limit, boasting all the while of what an excellent motorist he is and how it is the dawdlers who cause all the accidents.
Perhaps this is why, six days before the first round of the presidential poll, a third of voters say they do not know who they will support next Sunday, and there are predictions of a high abstention rate. In their popular wisdom, the French know that they face an unsatisfactory choice. The gulf between the rulers and the ruled has opened to an alarming extent. The history of France shows that this gulf needs to be breached if the inherent instabilities in Western Europe's second most important country are not to break through to the surface.