National News

Serge Dassault, French Aviation Magnate, Is Dead at 93

Posted June 1, 2018 5:49 p.m. EDT

PARIS — Serge Dassault, the French billionaire and aviation magnate who made successful forays into politics and the media but was caught up in corruption scandals later in life, died on Monday at his office in Paris. He was 93.

The cause was heart failure, his family said in a statement first published by the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, which his company owns.

His funeral was held on Friday at Les Invalides, the complex of military museums and monuments in the heart of Paris. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe delivered a eulogy.

“By serving his company, Serge Dassault never ceased to serve his country,” Philippe said. “It was legitimate that the country express its gratitude today.”

As chairman and chief executive of the family-owned Dassault Group, Dassault was at the helm of a vast business empire that includes software, media and real estate businesses, as well as vineyards and an auction house.

Dassault is best known for building civilian and military aircraft, which has made the company a linchpin of France’s defense industry and a major exporter of planes, most notably the Rafale fighter jet and the Falcon private jet.

“Aircraft was his passion,” Dassault Aviation, the Dassault Group’s core business, which Dassault led in the 1980s and ′90s before becoming honorary chairman, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Speaking on Europe 1 radio on Tuesday, Dassault’s oldest son, Olivier, said it was no surprise that his father had died at his office, on the roundabout of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

“He was a Dassault through and through; he taught us what was valuable in life, the value of work,” Olivier Dassault said. “At 8:30 a.m. he was in his office, despite his age.” He added that his father had always insisted on the importance of employee profit-sharing.

Serge Dassault was estimated to have the fourth-largest fortune in France, worth about 19 billion euros ($22.6 billion), according to a ranking in March by Forbes magazine.

Dassault inherited the company from his father, Marcel Dassault, an aviation enthusiast who founded the company and created such famous fighter planes as the Mystère and the delta-winged Mirage.

Dassault shared not only his father’s passion for aviation but also his interests in politics and the media. He ran for office as a conservative and bought into several publishing ventures.

In 1995, Dassault was elected mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a town 15 miles southeast of Paris, defeating a Communist incumbent. He was re-elected five times. He also held a seat in the Senate, France’s upper house of Parliament, from 2004 to 2017.

Dassault was admired in French business circles and by many politicians, especially conservatives, as an entrepreneur and as a symbol of economic patriotism. Bruno Le Maire, France’s economy minister, said in a statement that Dassault had been an “ambassador for French technological know-how abroad.”

But others were critical of his cozy relations with politicians, his attempts to sway the editorial line at Le Figaro, and the corruption scandals that clouded his later years. In 2009, France’s highest administrative court annulled Dassault’s re-election as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes over suspicions of illegal money donations to voters. He was also under investigation over accusations of buying votes in favor of his successor.

The conflicting attitudes toward Dassault were on full display in French newsstands after his death.

While a photograph of Dassault filled almost the entire front page of Le Figaro on Friday, proclaiming that he had “France at heart,” the left-leaning daily Libération, known for its cheeky headlines, wrote that he was now “tiré d’affaires” — or “off the hook” — for his multiple legal entanglements.

In February 2017, Dassault was found guilty of money laundering and tax fraud for hiding millions of his own euros in tax havens. He was fined 2 million euros. An appeal of the verdict had been scheduled to be heard in court in June.

Serge Dassault was born in Paris on April 4, 1925. His father was born into a Jewish family as Marcel Bloch but changed his last name and converted to Roman Catholicism after World War II. His mother was Madeleine Minckès.

The Gestapo imprisoned Serge and his family in a French detention camp in 1944, and his father was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the Germans hoped to use his skills as an aircraft designer. Marcel Dassault was freed after eight months. The other members of the family were freed within weeks of being seized, when the Germans abandoned the detention camp.

Serge Dassault went on to study engineering, including at the prestigious École Polytechnique, before starting work at his father’s company in 1951, first in the aviation department and then, in 1963, as a senior manager in its electronics branch. He was chairman and chief executive of Dassault’s aviation business from 1986 to 2000.

In 2014, the Dassault Group named his right-hand man, Charles Edelstenne, currently the group’s chief executive, to succeed Dassault.

Besides his son Olivier, Dassault is survived by his wife, Nicole Raffel; three other children, Laurent, Thierry and Marie-Hélène; and several grandchildren.