Say “Marcel Dassault” in France and ears will perk up. The founder of aeronautical company Group Dassault, he died over two decades ago but his family remains one of the richest in the country.
But Marcel Dassault did not come from money—far from it. Born Marcel Bloch (he changed his Jewish-sounding name after World War II), he was the fourth son of a Jewish general practitioner of modest means. Remembered as sickly and withdrawn as compared to his brothers, he was also a proud Frenchman who said Thomas Edison had inspired him as an engineer.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Dassault, 22, was one of the few with an aeronautical engineering background (he had just graduated from a school in Paris in 1913). For this reason he wasn’t sent to the front but rather to a French research lab, where he developed his first weapons at the heart of an industry changing from artisanal to serial production. In particular, Dassault designed the wooden propellers that gave French fliers a marked advantage over the Germans during the war. It was the first milestone of many in a long career producing top-notch aircraft—Dassault’s Mirage fighter was the weapon that enabled Israel to crush Egypt’s Soviet-supplied MIGs in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Dassault’s story is particularly notable in that his name has endured this long. Following the Armistice in World War I, demand for aircraft was virtually nil; it wasn’t until 1930 that Dassault returned to manufacturing. His first company, Société des Avions Marcel Bloch, was nationalized in 1936 under the French socialist government, although he was allowed to remain as the company’s director.
Dassault’s biggest setback came during World War II, where even his contributions to France could not save him. Because of Dassault’s refusal to collaborate with the Nazis under the Vichy government, as well as his Jewish heritage, the French police deported him with the last convoy of French Jews to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Dassault’s wife and two sons were interned in the Drancy camp outside Paris. Of the experience, he has said, “C’est là que l’on s’aperçoit que l’on n’est rien”—“that was when we could perceive that we are nothing.”
Ironically enough, Dassault had a severe fear of flying: he took his only long distance flight when he was repatriated in 1944. He credited his survival to Communist prisoners who found him enough to eat, and donated money in the following years to the Communist newspaper l’Humanité; he also demonstrated his gratitude by naming one of his saviors as publicity director for a magazine he founded in the 1950’s. Dassault was eventually awarded the Croix de guerre for 1939-1945.
Dassault’s deportation marked him: After the war, he converted to Catholicism and took on the name Dassault, a more “French” sounding name, which derives from a codename his brother had taken on while fighting in the resistance. The code name, char d’assault, means battle tank in French. Dassault was not known to be a religious man—he is said to have been agnostic—and likely implemented this identity change in order to better integrate into French society and protect his family from future persecution. Dassault resumed business in 1946, founding a new firm, Avions Marcel Dassault Co., under his new name.
Thenceforth, Dassault’s career rebounded. A Los Angeles Times’ obituary summed up Dassault’s post-war years:
“Utilizing a minimum of engineers and capitalizing on his uncanny design sense, he provided the French their first jets—the Ouragan and the Mystere. In 1955 he built the Mirage III, capable of twice the speed of sound. ‘I called it Mirage because I thought of it like a vision in the desert. The enemy would see it but never reach it,’ he said.”
“Later he manufactured the Etendard for the French navy which evolved into the Super Etendard used by the Argentine air force against the British in the 1982 battle for the Falklands. He also began building business jets, undercutting the prices of US competitors, and in the late 1960’s took over his only competitor, Breguet Aviation, builder of the Anglo-French Jaguar bomber.”
“His export business grew rapidly and accounted for more than 70 percent of total sales. But when the Socialists under Francois Mitterand again came to power in 1981 his firm once more was nationalized. This time he kept 49 percent of the stock and a position as general adviser.”
But Dassault was more than a businessman. In the latter part of his life he helped fund numerous French films; he was also a political conservative and in 1958 was elected to the National Assembly. According to the Times: “A measure of his political popularity was that even though he rarely attended Assembly sessions in recent years and was considered reclusive by all but his closest associates, he was reelected to his parliamentary seat March 15 without making one campaign appearance or speech. He did not even show up to vote for himself.”
One reason may have been his generosity to the community, and his role model status. In 1971, Dassault wrote an autobiography, “Le Talisman,” which he dedicated to young people. “I wanted to show that it is not necessary to inherit in order to succeed,” he wrote in the preface, “and that it is a matter of persevering. Not everyone has his or her own four-leaf clover, but everyone has his or her star.”
Dassault was likely referring to a four-leaf clover that he found in 1939 as the Second World War broke out; the clover survived with him through the camps and was passed on to his son, now the CEO of Group Dassault, who to this day keeps it in his wallet. The clover has also long been the logo of his family’s company.
Dassault never retired, and died in Paris at 94 of respiratory complications. By 1986, the year of his death, Avions Marcel Dassault-Breguet Aviation had sold 6,000 airplanes in 61 countries. He has been remembered rather prominently in French public life: In 1992, the Champs-Elysées traffic roundabout in Paris was named after him. More recently, a French TV film on Dassault’s life is slated for release this year.
Meanwhile, the Dassault name lives on. Serge Dassault, 87, one of Marcel Dassault’s sons, is a socially and fiscally conservative French senator and the current chairman and CEO of Group Dassault, one of the most prosperous companies in France.
Serge might not have his father’s knack for invention, but he certainly has the business acumen. Since Marcel’s death, the group has expanded to software and media holdings and currently employs over 18,000 people. Among its most prominent holdings is the French news outlet Le Figaro, which the group acquired in 2004. Like his father, Serge Dassault is also a politician, previously serving as the mayor of Corbeil-Essones, a city south of Paris, until June 2009 when authorities discovered he made cash payments to voters (he is appealing this ruling).
As of 2012, Serge Dassault was the 93rd richest person in the world, with a net worth of $9.9 billion. He took over the family company when he was 61, after the death of his father. At 87, Serge Dassault doesn’t see himself retiring anytime soon, but the question of who will take over the company has indeed become a family—and public—affair. Among Serge Dassault’s four children, two of the sons have been vying for the head position for several years. Last month, it was announced that Olivier Dassault, 61, the oldest son and also a French politician, would take over the reins.
In a way, it seems almost miraculous that a small company formed nearly a century ago, whose CEO faced deportation and felt it necessary to change his identity, has survived until this day—and prosperously, at that. In France, it is common to have “family enterprises” of sorts—a small company, perhaps a fashion or makeup house, founded decades ago that now has large holdings managed by children and grandchildren. And perhaps that is the secret of the Dassault family’s success.
Bernard Charlès, chief executive of Dassault Systèmes, is certainly one to think so. “If we did not have this shareholder structure, I think Dassault Systèmes would be in foreign hands by now,” Charlès told The Guardian in 2011. “In the hi-tech industry, M&A [mergers and acquisitions] happens at the speed of light and deals are not always happening for value creation. They can be about value destruction by removing a competitor.”
Thus by keeping the company within the family, the Dassaults have been able to protect the company and the name of their forebear, Marcel Dassault—politician, inventor, entrepreneur.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.