French tycoon Serge Dassault dies at 93

French tycoon Serge Dassault dies at 93

Industrialist, who was arrested by Gestapo during WWII, was best known for running aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation

French UMP senator and businessman Serge Dassault attends a campaign meeting in Draveil, near Paris, on June 13, 2012. (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard/File)
French UMP senator and businessman Serge Dassault attends a campaign meeting in Draveil, near Paris, on June 13, 2012. (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard/File)

PARIS (AFP) — One of France’s richest men, Serge Dassault, has died in his office after suffering a suspected heart attack, his family announced on Monday. He was 93.

Dassault, head of aviation, media and software giant Dassault Group, was a titan of the French business world who served as a right-wing senator and a scandal-plagued mayor of a town south of Paris.

France’s third wealthiest person — with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine of $14.8 billion (12.7 billion euros) — died in his office on the Champs-Elysees on Monday afternoon, his family said.

“The family and the Dassault group will communicate shortly about the modalities for paying homage to Mr Serge Dassault,” said the statement from the family sent by his company’s press office.

Dassault is best known for his controlling stake in Dassault Aviation, which has made a series of famed planes in France, including the Falcon business jet, the Mirage fighter and the country’s most cutting-edge military jet, the Rafale.

The father-of-four also owned France’s biggest-selling right-wing newspaper, Le Figaro.

French industrialist and politician Serge Dassault poses with a copy of French newspaper Le Figaro in Paris, on February 5, 2002. (AFP Photo/Joel Robine/File)

The Dassault family’s business empire was founded by his father Marcel, an aeronautical engineer and celebrated inventor who developed a propeller used in French planes during the World War I.

Marcel Dassault, who grew up Jewish, but later converted to Roman Catholicism, survived the Buchenwald death camp during World War II after being sent there by occupying Nazi forces because he refused to put his skills at the disposal of the invaders.

Arrested along with the rest of his family by the Gestapo as a teenager, Serge Dassault narrowly avoided deportation and would go on to pursue studies at elite French universities before entering the family business in his 20s.

He finally succeeded his father after his death in 1986 and took the helm of the family group at the age of 61 — when most people are thinking of retiring.

Marcel Dassault (L), chairman of French aerospace group Dassault Aviation and his son Serge Dassault give a press conference in Paris, on November 5, 1975. (AFP Photo/File)

Defying opposition from the French government, which doubted that he was able to run a high-technology business, he developed Dassault at a time of consolidation in the European aerospace industry and severe competition from US manufacturers.

The Rafale plane, in use in the skies above Iraq and most recently during French strikes on chemical weapons installations in Syria, is considered one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets.

One of the first tributes to Dassault came from former French prime minister Manuel Valls who wrote that “his name, and his father’s, has shone for decades in France and in the entire world.”

Scandals and corruption

As well as his business interests, Dassault pursued a political career like his father — leading to scandal.

In February this year, Dassault was only spared jail because of his age after being convicted of tax fraud for hiding millions of euros in Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and the Virgin Islands.

He was instead fined two million euros and barred from holding elected office for five years.

In April 2014, he was also charged with vote-buying, complicity in illegal election campaign financing and exceeding campaign spending limits over his terms as mayor in the Parisian suburb of Corbeil-Essonnes.

The case revealed a shocking series of allegations including extortion, cash circulating in plastic bags and even shootings.

Dassault was mayor of the town from 1995 to 2009.

Dassault Aviation’s chairman Serge Dassault poses in front a Rafale fighter jet before the 43rd Le Bourget airshow near Paris, on June 11, 1999. (AFP Photo/Frederick Florin/File)

In 1998, Dassault received a two-year suspended prison sentence in Belgium for bribing members of the country’s Socialist Party to win an army helicopter contract in what became known as the Agusta scandal.

He and his Le Figaro newspaper were staunch supporters of former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy and Dassault was a social conservative, once calling gay marriage “an enormous danger to the country.”

Dassault is survived by four children including his son Olivier, who is a right-wing lawmaker in parliament.

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