Castro Wins Admirers, Detractors on Paris Trip

PARIS -- Looking uncomfortable in a sharp business suit, Cuban President Fidel Castro has charmed many in France with his romantic revolutionary aura while repelling others as a communist dinosaur.

Mobbed more like a pop star than a pariah during a rare four-day visit to a Western democracy, he has lunched with President Fran?ois Mitterrand, toured the Versailles Palace of Louis XIV and confessed to admiration for Napoleon.

Castro will probably return home Thursday convinced that many French back the socialist ideals of a 1959 revolution that have driven Cubans into exile.

In one crush, at UNESCO headquarters, adoring supporters chanted "Viva Fidel!" Castro, 68, joked that not since the World War I Battle of Verdun had it taken such an effort to advance a few meters.

At Versailles on Wednesday, Japanese tourists gasped and snapped pictures of Castro, reckoning his visit to be an unexpected bonus in the 17th-century palace built to glorify the autocratic "Sun King."

Lapping up the attention, Castro also won warm applause from French business leaders, telling them they had a "historic role" to play in helping the country overcome a crippling 34-year U.S. embargo.

"I'm converting capitalists to socialism," he quipped.

He said he was too old to be lured to capitalism despite an ideological slide from Marxist-Leninist ideals in wooing private capital to help Cuba out of an economic mire partly caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Forsaking his trademark green military fatigues for cool business suits on his more formal engagements, he has admitted he does not even know how to do up a tie -- and had to get someone else to do it.

"Since my time in the mountains, I got into the habit of wearing comfortable clothes," he said.

Of his beard, he said he had saved 10 minutes a day by not shaving since before the revolution. "We did not have time to shave ... and later on the beard became a symbol," he said.

Prime Minister Edouard Balladur sharply distanced himself from Socialist Mitterrand's decision to receive Castro, and even Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate trying to succeed Mitterrand in May presidential elections, branded Castro a "dictator."

Exiled Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrero Infante compared Castro's visit to the welcome once accorded to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, executed during the collapse of East European communism.

And the conservative daily Le Figaro said Mitterrand had greeted "the cruellest dictator of the New World; bringing out the Republican Guard: rolling out the red, blood-red carpet." But many in France seemed entranced by the almost mythical aura of a man who overthrew the Batista dictatorship and has maintained a tropical outpost of socialism on the doorstep of a superpower.

Even Balladur voiced opposition to the U.S. embargo, which Mitterrand has called "stupid."