Former French president Francois Mitterrand, whose remarkable intellectual powers and Machiavellian political skills propelled his career as one of the most prominent European leaders of the late 20th century, died yesterday of prostate cancer. He was 79.

Unlike his nemesis, Charles de Gaulle, who claimed to be inspired and driven by a singular vision of France, Mitterrand often changed his views and convictions with astonishing speed. He relished pragmatism over grandiose ideals, and that trait alone helped him survive long stretches in the political wilderness.

"My strategy is to have only tactics," Mitterrand said, explaining the frequent course corrections -- from conservatism to socialism and back to something in the middle -- through a career that baffled and infuriated friends and foes alike. In later years, he became known as "The Sphinx" because of his enigmatic and unpredictable nature.

Mitterrand, who was first elected president in 1981, ended his second term in office last May, when, already seriously ill, he handed the reins of power to rival Jacques Chirac. His 14 years as head of state made him the longest-serving French president in history.

As the most visible component of his legacy, Mitterrand leaves behind a series of mammoth building projects that changed the face of Paris -- I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, the great modernistic arch at La Defense commercial development, the new Bastille opera house, the new National Library. Critics said these projects reflected Mitterrand's grandiose sense of his place in French history; others praised his contribution to one of the world's most civilized cities.

As news of his demise spread, praise for Mitterrand's political achievements poured in from fellow politicians. They were led by a salute from Chirac, who hailed in particular Mitterrand's quest for unity among European nations -- especially between France and Germany.

"He advanced the construction of Europe with determination," said Chirac. "A great figure has left, and I salute him with emotion and with respect."

"Not only France, but the United States and the entire world benefited from his leadership," said President Clinton. "He was a man of vision whose strength helped bring Europe and the West through a period of tough confrontation to the peaceful, undivided Europe we are building today."

"Europe has lost a great statesman. . . . I mourn for a good friend," said German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who worked closely with Mitterrand to forge the Maastricht Treaty on European union.

Mitterrand is to be buried Thursday morning in a private funeral in the southwestern town of Jarnac, where he was born. Georges Kiejman, his close friend and a former justice minister, said Mitterrand did not want a state funeral. However, a ceremony will be held in Paris on Thursday, which has been declared a national day of mourning, to allow the public to pay tribute to the former president, the Reuter news agency reported.

Mitterrand took a special delight in political theatrics, whether it involved laying a single red rose at the crypt of Socialist Party founder Jean Jaures in the wake of his election as president in 1981 or making a surprise trip to Sarajevo when the Serb siege severed the Bosnian capital from the outside world.

The author of 10 books, Mitterrand was fond of literary life and would often prowl the bookstores near his Left Bank apartment or the Elysee presidential palace. He would reach for Montesquieu and Plato as his preferred reading and was so well steeped in the lessons of Europe's war-torn past that George Bush once remarked that he knew of no other leader with Mitterrand's grasp of history.

But he was also a man of worldly passions, with an intense love of travel, golf, fine cuisine and attractive women. He reveled in the beauty of the French landscape, taking long woodsy walks in the company of friends and family near his retreat in Latche, a village in southwestern France.

Nonetheless, it was his extraordinary political odyssey that will earn Mitterrand a special niche in history next to de Gaulle as one of the most influential politicians to shape the destiny of France in this century.

After flirting with the ultranationalist right during his student days in Paris before World War II, Mitterrand became a key centrist figure vehemently opposed to the Communists and served 11 times as a government minister during the chaotic political jumble of the postwar Fourth Republic.

He rapidly solidified his reputation as a man prepared to trim his sails according to the prevailing political winds. But his career was nearly swamped by the colonial crisis in Algeria in the early 1950s. As interior minister, he refused to negotiate with Algerian rebels, a decision that took France down the path toward a war that would traumatize the country.

Once de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 and shifted French policy in favor of Algerian independence, Mitterrand seemed finished as a politician. A year later, the notorious "Observatory affair" appeared to drive the final nail in his coffin, subjecting him to ridicule and shattering his credibility.

Mitterrand claimed that he was being targeted for assassination, and one night his car was tailed in Paris and shot at by unidentified gunmen. He escaped over the rail of the Observatory garden unharmed. Later, a police inquiry led to the arrest of a yogurt salesman, who insisted Mitterrand had hired him to carry out the attack in the hope it would revive his political fortunes. Mitterrand called the allegation a smear tactic by his Gaullist enemies, but the case was dropped, and the truth was never established.

It was a humiliating episode that would have destroyed many politicians, but Mitterrand again showed his uncanny ability to bounce back from apparent disaster. He moved into the leadership vacuum of the anti-Gaullist opposition and eventually took over the reins of the nearly defunct Socialist Party by shifting his loyalty to the left.

Soon he emerged as the champion of the united left, linking the Socialists in an uneasy alliance with the Communists. In 1981, after two failed tries at the presidency, he defeated Valery Giscard d'Estaing to realize, at age 64, his lifelong ambition of becoming head of state.

Once in power, he showed no compunction about embracing positions that he had once excoriated.

After chastising de Gaulle for developing France's independent nuclear program when in opposition, Mitterrand became one of its staunchest defenders as a president who upheld France's role as a middleweight nuclear power.

When the French economy was threatened by capital flight after the left took power, he reversed course with austere policies that jettisoned Socialist dogma and restored faith in the franc. But it came at the cost of alienating the Communists, who abandoned the leftist government in 1984, and the working-class constituency that had formed the basis of leftist electoral support.

In his second seven-year term, which began when the Socialists recaptured power in 1988, Mitterrand sought to consolidate his place in history by effecting two main accomplishments that he hoped would distinguish him from de Gaulle: establishing a stronger working relationship with the United States and forging an unbreakable bond with Germany as the axis of a more unified Europe.

On these matters, too, his actions could appear contradictory. He often criticized American leadership of the Western alliance as too surly and arrogant, yet invariably backed Washington in times of crisis.

His 1983 speech to the German Bundestag advocating the deployment of Pershing II and cruise nuclear missiles in Germany outraged his Socialist colleagues and provided welcome support for the conservative governments of Kohl and President Ronald Reagan. He also backed the Persian Gulf War and sent French troops to fight alongside the Americans.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall started to tumble, Mitterrand flew to East Berlin and later to Kiev, dismissing the notion of German unification and declaring that Europe's balance of power must be sustained. But he artfully managed to prevent his mistaken judgment from impairing his longstanding partnership with Kohl.

Apart from pragmatism, Mitterrand's two terms as president also witnessed startling displays of venality. After vowing that the left would usher in a new era of political morality, the Socialist governments became enmeshed in a succession of corruption scandals that disenchanted voters and forced Mitterrand to share power twice during his tenure -- from 1986 to 1988 and from 1993 to 1995 -- with the conservative opposition.

Mitterrand's personal tastes as president could verge on the monarchical. His obsession with royal prerogatives, critics say, impelled him to launch multibillion-dollar building projects, such as the Arch at La Defense, the Louvre pyramid and the National Library, that would serve as monuments to his presidency.

Such eclectic accomplishments seemed highly unlikely when Francois Maurice Adrien Marie Mitterrand was born Oct. 26, 1916, into a rural Catholic family headed by a railroad stationmaster in Jarnac, not far from Cognac in southwestern France. The second of eight children born to Yvonne and Joseph Mitterrand, he would later marvel at how sheltered he was during his middle-class upbringing in the countryside.

"I wasn't born a socialist, still less on the left," he recalled a half-century later, remarking how remote he had been from the raging social conflicts that defined politics in Europe. "I became a socialist under the weight of ideas and events."

He was educated privately by Marist priests and achieved academic distinction on the way to earning degrees in law and political science. But like most Europeans of his generation, his life was forged by the events of World War II and, in particular, the German occupation of France.

After being drafted into the French army, he was sent to the Maginot line in the futile attempt to stave off a German invasion. Within a month after the Germans attacked France in June 1940, Mitterrand was wounded by artillery shrapnel and taken prisoner.

For the next 18 months, he was held in a variety of prison camps. There he built friendships among fellow French prisoners, including Roger-Patrice Pelat, a businessman who would embroil him in scandal, and Communists who would become his crucial allies in winning the presidency.

"I didn't know the Communists before sharing black bread and thin gruel with them in the German camps," he wrote later. "I found them again in the Resistance, and we became friends. Cats and dogs in the same house."

Mitterrand tried to escape three times. On the first attempt, he was recaptured three weeks later near the Swiss border. On a second occasion, he was betrayed by a hotel keeper in Metz and hauled back to prison. On the third try, he succeeded in slipping through the Jura mountains into Vichy-ruled southern France.

Family connections helped him secure proper identification papers and a minor civil servant's job in the collaborationist Vichy government headed by Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain. He was later decorated for his work in Vichy, an award that would haunt his postwar political career.

Mitterrand always contended that his work in Vichy was merely a cover for the Resistance movement, which he joined in 1943. But doubts have never been resolved about the true nature of his loyalties, partly because of Mitterrand's murky accounts of how he earned the decoration.

He took the name "Morland" when he joined the Resistance and started his career in the underground by organizing war prisoners' groups that would agitate against the Nazi occupation.

Like others in the Resistance movement, he would later recall how his many brushes with disaster helped steel him for the vicissitudes of life in politics. One celebrated incident occurred at the Montparnasse railway station in Paris, when Mitterrand arrived with a suitcase of explosives only to be stopped by a policeman checking for contraband.

Rather than rush away or fire the pistol he carried, Mitterrand opened the suitcase with serenity. The policeman took one glance at the explosives and shut the suitcase. "I'm only interested in butter and cheese," the policeman said, and allowed him to proceed.

During his time in the Resistance, Mitterrand also met his wife, Danielle, who was working as a nurse. Although she complained at first that the mustache and broad hats he wore as a Resistance disguise made him look ugly, the romance blossomed, and they were married six months later.

They had three sons -- Pascal, who died as an infant; Jean-Christophe, a journalist with Agence France-Presse who later became his father's chief adviser on Africa; and Gilbert, an academic researcher and local politician in the family's southwestern home region.

Danielle Mitterrand stayed in the background of her husband's political career, but she demonstrated in favor of many leftist and liberationist causes. She was particularly active in fighting female circumcision in Africa, espousing the Kurdish drive for independence and advocating restoration of the Dalai Lama as Tibet's religious leader.

While Mitterrand took pride in charting an unpredictable political course, he often acknowledged that his wife had sensitized him to many issues and probably nudged his sympathies toward the left.

It was revealed in 1994 that Mitterrand also had a daughter, Mazarine, with his mistress, Anne Pingeot. He spent this past Christmas with his second family in Egypt before returning to France to celebrate the New Year with his wife and their two sons.

Mitterrand died in the apartment adjoining his office near the Eiffel Tower, where he had lived for most of the last eight months rather than with his wife at their Latin Quarter home. He had undergone two operations for prostate cancer in the last four years.

Another important relationship in his life also was forged during the war. The bitter rivalry with de Gaulle that would mark Mitterrand's entire political career, first in opposition and later as a world statesman aspiring to a more exalted place in history, was evident from the day they first met.

When the 27-year-old Resistance fighter was invited to meet the general at his North African headquarters, he dutifully flew to London and then on to Algiers. With his usual imperious manner, de Gaulle demanded that Mitterrand merge his war prisoners' group into the movement run directly by the general. Mitterrand refused. His snubbing of an order delivered by the leader of Free France, Mitterrand wrote a quarter-century later, "began an incompatibility of humor that still lasts." CAPTION: Landmarks In a Half-Century In Politics 1916: Born in the small town of Jarnac in southwestern France, son of a railway stationmaster. 1939-42: Serves in the French army in 1939-40. Wounded and taken prisoner near Verdun, he escapes from Germany on the third attempt in 1941 and becomes an official of the collaborationist Vichy government in charge of prisoners of war. He receives the Francisque medal, Vichy's highest honor. 1942-45: While in Vichy, becomes active in the anti-Nazi Resistance and meets his future political enemy, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, in Algiers in 1943. Later, he is smuggled back to France to run an intelligence network and prepare postwar public administration. 1946: Is elected member of Parliament, running as part of a Resistance-based left-wing movement. Attends the founding conference of the European movement in The Hague. 1947: Appointed veterans' affairs minister at 31, France's youngest minister. 1954-57: Interior minister at the start of Algeria's war of independence, takes hard line against negotiation. As justice minister, orders seizure of newspapers that criticize French policy. 1958: Opposes de Gaulle's return to power and denounces his Fifth Republic constitution as a "permanent coup d'etat." 1965: Forces de Gaulle into a presidential runoff, taking 45 percent of the vote. 1971: Becomes leader of unified Socialist Party and negotiates 1972 Union of the Left pact with the Communists. 1974: Is narrowly defeated for president by center-right finance minister Valery Giscard d'Estaing. 1981: Defeats Giscard d'Estaing to become France's first Socialist president with 51.75 percent of the vote. 1981-82: Nationalizes large sectors of banking, insurance and manufacturing, imposes exchange controls, abolishes death penalty, cuts retirement age to 60 and workweek to 39 hours, grants all French workers a fifth week of paid vacation. 1983: After third devaluation of the franc in two years, switches to orthodox austerity policies. 1986-88: Forced to share power with a conservative government headed by Jacques Chirac after Socialists lose parliamentary elections. 1988: Wins second seven-year term, defeating Chirac with 54 percent of the vote. 1992: Freezes French nuclear weapons tests in South Pacific after Cold War ends, urging other powers to follow suit. Is diagnosed as having cancer after first prostate operation. 1993: Socialists are crushed in parliamentary elections. A conservative government starts privatizing most of the firms he nationalized. 1994: Undergoes second prostate operation, followed by draining chemotherapy. 1995: Hands over office to Chirac, who defeated Socialist Lionel Jospin in presidential runoff. CAPTION: Francois Mitterrand in his military uniform in 1939. CAPTION: Mitterrand was the driving force behind the pyramid addition to the Louvre museum. CAPTION: Mitterrand met with President Reagan at the White House in 1982. CAPTION: President Mitterrand led the way in a 1990 march against racism and antisemitism at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, above. Below, he made a point to President Clinton as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl walked past during a summit in Tokyo in 1993. At right, Mitterrand's brother Robert, with his wife, leaves the Paris office where the former president died.