Baron Guy de Rothschild, eminent financier, horse-breeder, philanthropist and head of the Rothschild dynasty’s French banking empire through its most turbulent century, died Tuesday, June 12 at the age of 98.
Born in 1909, he guided the French arm of the Rothschild family through persecution at the hands of the Vichy government during the Second World War, post-war expansion and growth in investments abroad, increased competition in the banking sector and a slump in profits after the oil crisis of the 1970s.
But it was the nationalization of Banque Rothschild in 1981, after the election of socialist president François Mitterrand, which moved Guy de Rothschild to wonder whether “the fruit of forty years’ relentless labor” had all been in vain.
He left in anger for New York after losing the bank, decrying the alliance between French socialists and communists that had been upheld by President Mitterrand’s government. “The Socialists have remained Marxist,” he wrote in a letter published in Le Monde. “They still don’t understand that money has always been a tool of economic exchange.”
It was not his first emotional departure from his birthplace: in 1940, after the anti-Jewish policies of Vichy France stripped the Rothschilds of their assets and their nationality, Guy de Rothschild fled to join the forces of General de Gaulle. But the meaning for him was the same.
“A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterrand,” he wrote 40 years later, “for me it’s enough.”
The bank moved to Switzerland and was only resurrected in France in 1986, when the more right-wing Jacques Chirac became prime minister. But by then the torch had passed to Guy de Rothschild’s son, David.
After joining his family’s bank in 1931, Guy de Rothschild oversaw its growth in investment abroad. He became the head of the bank’s umbrella group for investments in mining and minerals, known as Imétal, in 1962. The following year, his portrait graced the cover of Time Magazine, his popularity no doubt boosted by his interest in British and American ventures.
The 1970s was a more difficult time for the bank, by then a limited-liability company. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 left the Rothschilds unable to take advantage of supply shortages, as the Arab League reiterated its 1963 ban on all links to the family. It claimed that the bankers were too close to the state of Israel.
The decline in profits left the bank in a weakened state, and the arrival of President Mitterrand sealed its fate.
Although the Rothschilds and their fortune are clouded in secrecy and rumors of global political influence, Guy de Rothschild had a public side that revealed itself in French high society. With his second wife Marie-Helene, he threw many parties at his Château de Ferrières just outside Paris, inspired by themes such as Surrealism and author Marcel Proust.