PARIS (AP) _ Making amends for centuries of Gallic sexism, male leaders watched Thursday as the ashes of brilliant scientist Marie Curie were enshrined in the Pantheon, the first woman honored at the memorial to the nation's ``great men.''

The ceremony at the majestic domed monument, draped with a huge French flag, was a symbolic triumph for French women's rights activists and a dramatic farewell gesture by President Francois Mitterrand.

Ailing with cancer as he completes the final weeks of his 14-year presidency, Mitterrand fulfilled a 1993 request from feminists that a woman be enshrined in the Pantheon.

On Mitterrand's order, the ashes of Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, were transferred from a small-town cemetery and carried in wood coffins into the Pantheon. The couple shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903, and she alone won the chemistry Nobel in 1911.

They are the 70th and 71st people whose remains are enshrined at the Pantheon. One woman, Sophie Bertholet, is there alongside her husband, renown chemist Marcellin Bertholet. But Mitterrand stressed at the ceremony that Marie Curie is ``the first lady in our history honored for her own merits.''

Ironically, Marie Curie was a native of Poland, not France, and Polish President Lech Walesa joined Mitterrand at Thursday's ceremonies. Also present were Premier Edouard Balladur and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, conservatives vying to succeed Mitterrand in a two-round election that begins Sunday.

The woman they honored was born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867.

She came to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where she met her husband. With their discoveries of polonium and radium, ``they changed the face of the world,'' 1993 Nobel Physics laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes told the Pantheon ceremony.

During World War I, Marie Curie was involved in the first use of radiology to treat wounded and trained the army's radiologist nurses at what is now known as the Curie Institute. The name ``curie'' is used today for the unit of measurement of radioactivity.

Despite her greatness, Marie Curie suffered from the male chauvinism prevalent during her heyday _ she was denied membership in the Academy of Sciences, which was then all-male.

Mitterrand said he sought to honor the Curies as two of the greatest scientists of modern times, and also to ``recognize the place that women hold in our society.''

But what is the place of French women?

Barred from voting until 1945, they hold only 6 percent of the seats in Parliament, a smaller share than any European Union country except Greece. The average salary of working women is 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

With women comprising more than half of the electorate, the leading presidential contenders have wooed their votes by proposing to boost female participation in politics. Balladur, for example, advocates a quota of at least 30 percent women in elections where parties present a slate of numerous candidates.

But women hold only 7 percent of the leadership posts in the Rally for the Republic, the party of Balladur and Chirac.

Balladur has promised to appoint 10 women to the Cabinet if elected president. Far-left candidate Arlette Laguiller _ one of two women running long-shot presidential campaigns _ scoffed that the prime minister ``took two years to realize he only had three women ministers in his government.''

Some women are looking ahead to an era of change, including Martine Aubry, a former labor minister and daughter of former European Union chief executive Jacques Delors.

Aubry is a top campaign organizer for Socialist presidential candidate Lionel Jospin, but is considered a potential candidate in her own right for the next election in 2002.

At a recent Jospin rally, she hinted at her plans.

``We must choose a man of progress, because it will be a man _ at least this time,'' she said.