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President Clinton might be in less political trouble at home and abroad if he didn't smile so much.

Europe's longest-lasting, most successful politicians never smile in public. Well, hardly ever."They only smile on official visits to kindergartens," explains French political scientist Jacques-Andre Noel.

European voters thoroughly mistrust smiling pols, he claims. They figure that they're covering up for having just botched some policy or other.

There is also the fact the average European doesn't feel that there's much to smile about most of the time, Noel says.

While acknowledging the vast gap separating the political cultures of America and Europe, the Frenchman suspects that most ordinary Americans have a similar attitude and are put off by the toothful grins so often emanating from their elected officials as seen on television.

His theory is that the electorate on both sides of the Atlantic wants gravitas from their public figures if they can't get competence.

European pols have figured this out far more quickly than their U.S. counterparts, he says.

"The secret of political success over here lies in projecting an aura of ponderous dignity," he says. "That means restricting smiling and grinning to an absolute minimum."

Providing that they cultivate a serious demeanor, even the worst bunglers can survive in public office in Europe. The list of examples is long.

France's two most powerful politicians, President Francois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, are - to put it mildly - not a barrel of laughs.

To see Mitterrand smile is like witnessing the winter sun bleakly cast its light on a snowbound landscape.

When Balladur smiles a tight smile - as happens once or twice a year - he instantly follows up with a look that seems to plead for forgiveness for a moment of weakness.

But the French relish their leaders' somber dignity.

Mitterrand has ruled his nation nearly 14 years - longer than anyone since Emperor Napoleon III in the mid-19th century.

Balladur is considered an increasingly good bet to succeed him in next April's presidential election.

Then consider German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, currently Europe's dominant politician.

Away from the public's gaze, he is a good-natured, even jolly type. But when caught out in the open, Kohl glares, growls and grimaces, making sure that everyone realizes he's a man carrying the weight of the nation on his very ample shoulders.

It works. Kohl, who has been chancellor since 1982, appears set to win his fourth election in a row next month.

Maybe the White House should look into this.