Former French Minister Dies at 78
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 9:08 PM
PARIS -- Jean-Francois Deniau, a former French government minister, diplomat, sailor and novelist, died Wednesday at age 78, friends said.
Deniau died at his Paris home, fellow writer Jean d'Ormesson said.
Deniau was truly a Renaissance man. As an envoy, he specialized in dangerous missions. An avid sailor, he crossed the Atlantic in a catamaran in 1995 _ just eight weeks after undergoing triple heart bypass surgery.
He titled his autobiography "Memoirs of Seven Lives," a reference to his many careers.
French President Jacques Chirac said he "embodied a noble French spirit made up of courage, panache and the taste for adventure."
Deniau was a member of the Academie Francaise, the gathering of France's literary heavyweights. His novel "Un Hero Tres Discret" (A Very Discreet Hero) told of an ordinary man who reinvented himself as a hero of the World War II Resistance. The book was adapted into a movie by director Jacques Audiard and given the English-language title "A Self Made Hero."
Born in 1928 in Paris, Deniau grew up with dreams of being an explorer. He was a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration, took an active role in European affairs and helped write the European Union's founding Treaty of Rome of 1957.
He went on to be an ambassador, notably in Spain. He was sent there soon after the 1975 death of the dictator Gen. Francisco Franco and was close to King Juan Carlos. He helped Spanish leaders through their transition to democracy.
An international champion of human rights, Deniau specialized in risky expeditions. In 1985, following up on a journalist's arrest, he entered secretly into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and spent nine days there at a time when most Westerners were barred from the country.
When Deniau visited Lebanon in 1986 as a member of the French National Assembly, the U.N. helicopter he was flying in was assaulted with machine-gun and anti-aircraft fire. No one was hurt, but fire tore through the fuel tank, forcing the aircraft to make an emergency landing at a soccer stadium.
As a politician with the centrist UDF party, Deniau served in six ministerial posts, from agriculture to foreign minister. He was the founder of the annual Sakharov human rights prize, named after the Soviet dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov and awarded by the European Parliament.
A lover of the sea, Deniau decided to cross the Atlantic by catamaran at age 67, two months after heart surgery. He said the despair he experienced in the hospital moved him to undertake the risky trip.
Deniau is survived by his wife and two children.