WHEN President Francois Mitterrand steps down from office later this month, he will have presided over France for 14 years -- longer than his life-long rival, World War II hero Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
His last years, however, have been years in office, but not in power. A stunning Socialist defeat in the 1993 parliamentary elections and other political setbacks left him marginalized.
Nonetheless, President Mitterrand exits the national scene larger than life.
''He will have been the last king of France,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. ''There's no one of his stature left in French politics.''
Along with De Gaulle, Mitterrand has been France's dominant political figure since World War II. But the two political adversaries followed very different careers.
While De Gaulle called on France to join the Resistance in 1940, Mitterrand attached himself to the French government in Vichy -- only joining the Resistance after the Allies landed in Africa two years later.
When France came close to a civil war in 1958 over its Algerian colony, De Gaulle called for a national referendum to ratify a new Constitution that would give the president emergency powers. Mitterrand argued against it, however, later describing De Gaulle's presidency -- after the new Constitution gave him added powers -- as a ''permanent coup d'etat.''
Similar to De Gaulle, however, Mitterrand leaves behind monuments on a Pharaonic scale: the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, the controversial $2 billion national library, and some 36 cultural centers outside Paris.
But the Socialist Party he brought back from oblivion in 1971 is in disarray, demoralized by corruption scandals and years of presidential neglect.
Because of this, the Socialist candidate in France's presidential campaign, Lionel Jospin, rarely invoked Mitterrand's name in seeking support. The Socialist years in power were not ''the results of a single man, Francois Mitterrand,'' he told Socialist elected officials in Vincennes last month. The high and low points resulted from a ''collective movement,'' and Mr. Jospin claimed ''the right to inventory'' the good and bad aspects of those years.
Mitterrand is not leaving to others the task of interpreting his years in public life. He has written 14 books, including some 5,000 pages still in print. His most recent venture, ''A Memoir in Two Voices,'' published last month, tries to respond to blemishes on his record -- including his activities as a publicist for the Vichy government.
No more questions
But many Socialists who gathered in the northwestern city of Lievin last November to hear Mitterrand address activists, perhaps for the last time, did not dwell long on the scandals of these years. Some recalled with emotion the image of the new Socialist president walking up the steps of the Pantheon on the first day of his administration, a single rose in hand, to lay on the grave of Jean Jaures, the founder of France's Socialist Party.
''It meant that Socialists, at last, had become part of the Republic,'' said one young party activist. ''I can still remember that moment.''
His trip last week to the edge of the Seine River to express a nation's sorrow for the murder of a young Moroccan by skinhead youths struck a similar tone of reconciliation.
Mitterrand began his presidency with 110 propositions for reform, most of which would be abandoned after the first three years in office, when the Socialists' soaring budget deficits ran up against world stock markets.
''The defining moment in the Mitterrand presidency was when he held to the strong franc in 1983, deciding for Europe and against a Socialist program,'' says Moreau Defarges, the analyst.
In foreign affairs, Mitterrand helped push France toward a single European currency. He also committed France to supporting the United States and other allies during the Gulf war, a policy that candidate Jospin and other Socialists now describe as one of the failures of the Mitterrand years.
But what most disappoints the party rank-and-file are the financial scandals that broke the image many had that their party was different from others: Socialists were not supposed to be interested in money for its own sake.
In his book of essays, ''The Bee and the Architect,'' written for the Socialist Party newspaper, Mitterrand describes evenings spent as a child playing chess with his grandfather.
''The game of Monopoly already existed,'' he writes. ''But I rejected the idea of wasting my hours fighting over money. I didn't have any interest in it, and I haven't acquired any.''
Yet pursuit of money could be one of the most memorable legacies of the Mitterrand years. Evidence of influence-peddling, corrupt party financing, and mismanagement abounds -- most notably involving the state-run bank, Credit Lyonnais, whose losses soar past $20 billion.
Close Mitterrand associate Francois de Grossouvre, provided information for Jean Montaldo's hard-hitting 1994 book ''Mitterrand and the 40 Thieves,'' which further documented a pattern of corruption and neglect. For many party activists, the worst revelation was that Mitterrand simply didn't care about a climate of corruption in his administration.
''The problem was power and arrogance,'' says longtime Socialist Axel Queval, a member of the Cabinet of the Socialist International. ''You get to like the chauffeur-driven car and the money. Most of our scandals, when you look at them, involved small sums, most of which went into party coffers.... If our leaders had been looking after their people, walking the streets, this would not have happened.''
The left's Sun King
Aloofness also came to define this president. He moved like a monarch, with ''courtiers'' worthy of France's Sun King, Louis XIV.
At De Gaulle's death in 1970, his prime minister and successor, Georges Pompidou, said that France was ''a widow.'' Until Mitterrand took office in 1981, no president would move into the general's former office in the lysee Palace.
Yet Mitterrand never came to embody the nation as De Gaulle did, and the disappointments of his years in office undermined the claim he once had to embody the hopes of the political left.
His name may be the most frequently misspelled in French politics (the official bronze plaque at Normandy's Utah Beach, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied landing on D-Day in June 1944, even drops a consonant.)
But his own sense of self, his regal bearing and turn of phrase, his capacity to skewer political rivals with a phrase -- or even a glance -- are the stuff of legend. He has been, says critic Paul Thibaud, ''a man above the law.'' The French daily newspaper Le Figaro recently referred to him as this ''Jupiterian Mitterrand.''
Mitterrand himself leaves a simpler message. Often invoking the inscription on the gravestone of former German President Willy Brandt, he says: ''I did what I could.''