PARIS -- European leaders reacted yesterday with obligatory homage to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the day of her resignation but made little secret of their hope that her successor would propel Britain into European integration.
Mrs. Thatcher's resistance to that integration, which she most recently and most scathingly turned away from at the European Community summit in Rome a month ago, was the immediate cause of her downfall. At the European Community offices in Brussels, Belgium, champagne reportedly flowed in celebration of the prime minister's downfall.
French President Francois Mitterrand, whose plans for European monetary and political union often pitted him against the strong-willed and outspoken British leader, sent a terse letter to the prime minister's residence. "The British prime minister has marked an important chapter in the history of Britain, as well as Europe," the letter said.
Officially, European Community President Jacques Delors -- a French Socialist whom Mrs. Thatcher publicly attacked on several occasions -- said he had sent a message "of respect for the woman Mrs. Thatcher is and for the difficult decision she had to make."
Portuguese President Mario Soares, while acknowledging that Mrs. Thatcher "took courageous positions on critical occasions in international life," criticized "her systematic opposition to the advances of the European Community."
"During her long mandate," Mr. Soares said, "the preoccupations of social justice receded many times before purely development objectives, causing a climate of discontent in British public opinion to which Mrs. Thatcher appeared insensitive."
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl issued no statement immediately after yesterday morning's resignation, but his Christian Democratic Union parliamentary chairman, Alfred Dregger, praised Mrs. Thatcher's role as a champion of the Atlantic alliance in the "historical conflict for freedom and democracy."
Speaking in Budapest, Hungary, Manfred Woerner, the NATO secretary-general, said that Mrs. Thatcher had been "one of the staunchest supporters of our Atlantic alliance, and she deserves all the credit for it. The success of our alliance wouldn't have been the same without her vision, courage and steadfastness."
Theo Waigel, the German finance minister, said, "Despite her critical position on some questions of European integration, she accomplished a great deal for European politics."
Although there was no shortage of criticism for Mrs. Thatcher's stance toward Europe, European leaders appeared united in their recognition of the pivotal role she has played in British, European and international politics.
There was also respect for her decision to step down, less than 24 hours after she left the 34-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe here, where she pledged to fight the challenges from within her Conservative Party.
Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who is now a deputy in the European Parliament, said that Mrs. Thatcher would rank next to Winston Churchill as the "greatest British prime minister of the last 50 years."
Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers struck a similar note. "In the many years that she placed such an important stamp on the policies of the United Kingdom, Mrs. Thatcher has shown that she does not avoid making difficult decisions that she deems to be in the nation's interest."
Mrs. Thatcher was a staunch anti-Communist who forged good relations with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and even gave economic aid to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. She won praise yesterday from the Soviet Union and from Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity union leader now running for leadership of his country.
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov called Mrs. Thatcher's resignation "a surprise."
"In our imagination, she was the Iron Lady who would fight to the end," he said. "She was a historic figure who helped bring the Soviet Union closer to Europe."