Françoise Giroud

Co-founder of 'L'Express' who became France's minister for women's affairs
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IN HER many callings, from humble script-girl to co-founder of the great weekly magazine L'Express, Françoise Giroud was a communicator of genius. She was a woman of high intelligence, gifted with a courageous social conscience and a sparkling sense of humour.

France Gourdji (Françoise Giroud), writer, journalist and politician: born Geneva 21 September 1916; Editor, Elle 1945-52; Editor, L'Express 1953-71, Director 1971-74; Minister for Women's Affairs 1974-75; Minister for Culture 1976-77; married (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 19 January 2003.

In her many callings, from humble script-girl to co-founder of the great weekly magazine L'Express, Françoise Giroud was a communicator of genius. She was a woman of high intelligence, gifted with a courageous social conscience and a sparkling sense of humour.

Her appearance on television in old age will long be remembered. In 100 ans, a programme about living to be a hundred (she was already in her eighties), she appeared with face and hands covered in plasters after falling downstairs that very afternoon. Asked for a sound diet for would-be centenarians, she answered "chopped steak and salads". Her Portuguese maid looked on disapprovingly as with her bandaged hands she tried to peel an apple – an infinitely touching scene, especially when she burst out laughing at her failure.

On another occasion she described how Jean Renoir had taught her, while still very young, that the best way to get people to work well for you was to lend an attentive ear to whatever they have on their minds. Once when she was out of work and broke, Louis Jouvet wrote a large cheque and shoved it into her handbag, against her horrified protests. He taught her that the greatest elegance is to be able to accept small things as simply as the big ones, without making a scene.

Giroud was not her real name. It is an anagram. Françoise was born France, in 1916, a daughter of Salih Gourdji, Director of the Agence Télégraphique Ottomane in Geneva. As soon as she began to make a name for herself in Europe, she changed it to Giroud.

She started her professional life with the film director Marc Allégret as a script-girl on his 1932 version of Marcel Pagnol's Fanny; four years later, she worked with Jean Renoir on the set of La Grande illusion. She developed a lifelong passion for the cinema.

In 1945, she became Editor of the new women's magazine Elle, a post she held brilliantly until 1953, when with Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber she founded L'Express and he became its Director-in-Chief. From 1974 to 1976, under Jacques Chirac, she was Minister for Women's Affairs; then from 1976 to 1977 Minister for Culture under Raymond Barre. From 1984 to 1988, she was President of Action Internationale contre le Faim. From 1989 to 1991 she was president of a commission to improve cinema-ticket sales. She was a literary critic on Le Journal du Dimanche, and she contributed a weekly column to Le Nouvel Observateur from 1983 until her death.

Aside from this impressive and rather daunting record, so far as it goes, she had a prodigiously productive literary life. Her active interest in the economics of cinema as well as in its aesthetic appeal led to the publication of La Nouvelle vague: portraits de la jeunesse (1958), while Comédie du pouvoir (1977) is a subtly ironic evocation of French political life behind the scenes. Another aspect of her interest in all the arts is found in her beautiful album Dior (1987) and her passion for larger-than-life human beings appears in Alma Mahler ou l'art d'être aimée (1988; translated as Alma Mahler, or The Art of Being Loved, 1991), followed by her homage to another great woman revolutionary, Jenny Marx ou le femme du diable ("Jenny Marx or the Wife of the Devil", 1992). She collaborated with Bernard-Henri Lévy in Les Hommes et les femmes (1993; Women and Men, 1995).

Giroud continued working in the world of the cinema, writing screenplays and adaptations for the small as well as the big screen, as in her 1984 adaptation of her own novel Le Bon plaisir (1983) filmed by Francis Girod and starring Catherine Deneuve. She also wrote an award-winning television series, Marie Curie, une femme honorable (1991), based on her biography Une Femme honorable (1981; Marie Curie: a life, 1986).

Through Marc Allégret, she had met André Gide, who astonished her by teaching her how to play with a yoyo, at which he was an expert. She remembered Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as a lovable crumpled teddy bear. She seems to have known everyone, and everyone certainly knew her. Her books of reminiscences Françoise Giroud vous présente le Tout-Paris (1953) and Nouveaux portraits (1954) contain a dazzling cast of witty and sympathetic "unretouched portraits" of famous friends – she apparently had no enemies or, if she did, she exercised her right to do the only humane thing and ignore them.

Giroud was a good all-round writer of prose, but her passion was journalism, described with enviable enthusiasm in Profession journaliste (2001). For her, journalism was simply "a way of life" – almost like entering into religion – a delight in finding oneself "at the world's beating heart". She held in absolute horror and detestation all the cheap popularising familiarity that has invaded the press. Yet she was one of the rare women who could write with "the common touch".

She was a truly liberated woman. "Liberation," she said, "comes from the mind first of all!" For men and for women, she said, liberation comes from having an open mind and being able to express it clearly.

The title of one of her last books is On ne peut pas être heureux tout le temps ("One Can't Be Happy All the Time", 2001), but she always remained philosophical about life and death. In Leçons particulières ("Private Lessons", 1990), she quotes a Zulu warrior proverb about facing death: "If you advance, you die: if you retreat, you die. Then why retreat?"

James Kirkup