PARIS -- Fidel Castro was treated to a trumpet-and-drum fanfare yesterday at the French presidential palace, where he happily told President Francois Mitterrand over lunch that his first visit to France signaled the end of the "apartheid" imposed by the West on his island nation.
The Cuban president, one of the world's last surviving Communist leaders, was embraced by many in France, where the Socialist president himself recently called the U.S.-led blockade of Cuba "stupid" and where Mr. Mitterrand's wife is one of Mr. Castro's biggest defenders.
Yesterday's visit came at the invitation of UNESCO and was not officially a French state visit.
In a passionate speech to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization yesterday, Mr. Castro accused the United States of trying to dominate the world and called its embargo a "criminal blockade" that victimizes children, women and the elderly.
He denounced "the complete hegemony of this one country . . . which scorns sovereignty, scorns peaceful settlement of disputes" and asserted that the United States "wants to control the outcome of the world."
Mr. Castro said the United States was applying a double standard to Cuba as punishment for the nation's rebelliousness.
"They trade with China and negotiate with North Korea for nuclear reactors," he said. "But we cannot even import an aspirin from the United States or obtain medicine for cancer or tetanus."
The visit, Mr. Castro's first to a major Western power, also was vintage Mitterrand, who at age 78, ailing with cancer and facing the final two months of his 14 years in power, has been doing pretty much as he pleases. Le Monde, the influential, left-leaning daily newspaper in Paris, viewed Mr. Mitterrand's warm welcome of Mr. Castro as "a last act of defiance against the Americans."
Mr. Castro arrived yesterday morning from a U.N. summit on global poverty in Copenhagen, Denmark, in his traditional olive-green fatigues and headed straight for breakfast with the French first lady, Danielle Mitterrand.
Mrs. Mitterrand, a regular visitor to Cuba and defender of leftist causes, told reporters that Mr. Castro was "not a dictator." She praised what she called Mr. Castro's "achievements in education and women's rights." Her remarks came just a few days after the U.N. Human Rights Commission censured Cuba for human rights violations.
Later yesterday, Mr. Castro appeared in a dark suit to review Republican Guards at the presidential palace, where he and Mr. Mitterrand shook hands. Over lunch, Mr. Castro told Mr. Mitterrand: "This morning, touching French soil, I said to myself, 'This is it. Apartheid is over.' "
Mr. Castro and Mr. Mitterrand, who have met only once before, are two of the world's longest-serving leaders.
Mr. Castro, 68, took power in 1959. He has made only two other visits to Europe, both to Spain.
The Cuban leader and his entourage were put up at Marigny Hotel, a residence reserved for France's most-honored guests.
Such was the fascination with Mr. Castro that he was invited to meet conservative political leaders at the National Assembly. He also will meet business leaders today in an effort to drum up foreign investment in Cuba.
Security was tight, and the French assigned a special unit of 24 officers to protect Mr. Castro.
"He is a symbol, one of the last revolutionary leaders," explained Rene-Georges Querry, head of the diplomatic protection service. "He has a mythical side that can make him a target."
At UNESCO, he was greeted by throngs of well-wishers chanting "Fidel!" and waving Cuban flags. Several dozen protesters also gathered to criticize Cuba's human rights record and demand the release of political prisoners.
Such words went down easily in France, which shares Castro's distrust of American economic and political power.