PARIS (AP) _ Greeted with fanfare at the presidential palace, Fidel Castro declared today that his groundbreaking visit to France marked the end of the ``apartheid'' the West had imposed on Cuba for 36 years.

``This morning, touching French soil, I said to myself, `This is it. Apartheid is over,''' Castro told President Francois Mitterrand during a luncheon at the Elysee Palace.

Later, in a passionate speech at UNESCO, Castro accused the United States of trying to dominate the world and denounced its embargo of Cuba as a ``criminal blockade'' that victimizes children, women and the elderly.

The Cuban president, one of the world's last communist leaders, received a trumpet-and-drum fanfare as he arrived at the palace and reviewed Republican Guardsmen. It was the first time he had been a guest of one of the major Western powers.

Mitterrand clasped Castro's hands for several moments as photographers and TV crews recorded the encounter between two of the world's longest-serving heads of state.

Castro, 68, took power in 1959. Mitterrand, 78 and ailing with cancer, ends his 14-year presidency in May.

Officially, Castro's three-day visit comes at the invitation of UNESCO, and is not classified as a state visit. But his itinerary includes meetings with many of the most powerful people in France.

Castro wore his olive-green military uniform when he arrived from the U.N. poverty summit in Copenhagen and had breakfast with France's first lady, Danielle Mitterrand. But he changed into a dark blue suit for his two-hour visit at the Elysee Palace, including talks with Mitterrand and a luncheon.

At UNESCO, he was greeted by throngs of well-wishers waving Cuban flags and chanting ``Fidel, Fidel.'' But some 50 protesters gathered outside UNESCO to criticize Cuba's human rights record and demand the release of political prisoners.

In his speech, Castro repeatedly assailed the United States, denouncing ``the complete hegemony of this one country... which scorns sovereignty, scorns peaceful settlement of disputes.''

The United States ``wants to control the outcome of the world,'' he said.

U.S. officials prolong the embargo because ``they want to get back at us because we were rebellious,'' Castro said. ``Yet they trade with China and negotiate with North Korea for nuclear reactors. But we cannot even import an aspirin from the United States or obtain medicine for cancer or tetanus.''

French officials said this is only Castro's third visit to Western Europe since his revolutionaries won power in Cuba. He visited Spain in 1984 and 1992.

Mitterrand was expected to use the visit to encourage overtures by Castro that might ease Cuba's international isolation. Cuba's economy is in shambles and it needs new partners following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mitterrand has denounced the U.S. embargo against Cuba as ``stupid'' and overseen an increase in French-Cuban trade.

French officials admitted protocol arrangements for the visit were complicated. Castro will stay at the Marigny Hotel, which houses France's most honored guests, but since he is not officially on a state visit there will be no Cuban flags flying on the Champs-Elysees.

Mitterrand justified the decision to bring Castro to France with hopes it would encourage ``real liberty'' in Cuba.