June 14, 2007 / 4:27 PM / 12 years ago

RPT-French banker Guy de Rothschild dies aged 98

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PARIS, June 14 (Reuters) - Baron Guy de Rothschild, the French banker who carried one of the most famous names in European finance and helped rebuild his family’s fortunes after World War Two, has died aged 98, according to a notice in the daily Le Figaro.

Head of the French branch of a family with more money than many countries, Rothschild counted political leaders among his friends, and his personal fortunes at times collided with events that marked the 20th century.

Fleeing France as a Jew during World War Two, he joined the Free French before returning to rebuild the house of Rothschild [ROT.UL].

He left again in 1982 after the Socialist government nationalised his bank. But three years later he put bitterness aside and returned from New York to the land of his birth.

“I went to America because we had been thrown out of the business world in France,” the baron told Reuters after his return, saying he did not want the French Rothschilds to become outsiders. “Now everyone knows we count as much as our English cousins.”

The fourth-generation Rothschild also said it was time for him to return to his roots.

Born in Paris on May 21, 1909, Baron Guy Edouard Alphonse Paul de Rothschild spent a good part of his childhood at a family castle so sumptuous it prompted one European monarch to exclaim: “A king couldn’t afford this. Only a Rothschild could”.

He joined the family bank, Rothschild Freres, at the age of 22 and obtained a senior position in the family’s extensive railroad holdings two years later.

Trained as a cavalry officer, Rothschild was mobilised in 1940 and decorated for bravery for leading a squadron under devastating German fire in the days before France’s defeat.

He escaped to New York in 1941 after the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Petain confiscated the family’s fortune and stripped his relatives of their citizenship. He later went to London to serve under General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French.

After the war, the family rebuilt its prosperity in the banking world and expanded into other areas. Guy, as the elder son of his generation, took over the Rothschild bank.

He became close friends with Georges Pompidou, who served as the bank’s director before becoming president of France.

Blue-eyed, debonair and charming, the baron entertained guests ranging from surrealist Salvador Dali to opera diva Maria Callas, from designer Yves St Laurent to Princess Grace of Monaco, at opulent balls at the restored family castle.

One of the world’s leading horse breeders, he spent much time at his Normandy estate, where he kept a stud farm.

By 1980, the French Rothschilds employed 2,000 people and controlled industrial interests with an annual turnover of some 26 billion francs (then $5 billion).

On May 21, 1981 — Guy’s 72nd birthday — Socialist Francois Mitterrand became president of France and before the year’s end had fulfilled a campaign promise to nationalise private banks.

“Of the House of Rothschild there will remain a few odd pieces, maybe nothing,” the baron wrote at the time in a scathing letter to the newspaper Le Monde. “A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterrand — for me it’s enough.”

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