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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale

Gone but not forgotten: Who did France say goodbye to in 2023?

A woman hangs flowers to the entrance of the home that Jane Birkin shared with Serge Gainsbourg in central Paris on July 20, 2023. © AFP / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT

The past 12 months have seen the deaths of people who made history in France and beyond, from politics to culture, business to science. RFI reviews some of 2023's most notable deaths.

Lucile Randon, world's oldest person

French nun Lucile Randon passed away in her sleep on 17 January 2023, just a month shy of her 119th birthday.

Born in southern France on 11 February 1904, she had been the world's oldest known person since April 2022.

Ismaïla Touré, ambassador of African music

Senegalese singer Ismaïla Touré died in Paris on 27 February. He was 73.

With his twin brother, he co-founded the band Touré Kunda that spearheaded world music in France in the late 1970s, becoming the first African band to conquer a broad European audience.

Ismaila Touré (right) performing alongside his twin brother, Sixu Tidiane Touré, at the Jazz in Montauban festival in 2004. © AFP/Pascal Pavani

Just Fontaine, football legend

French striker Just Fontaine scored an astonishing 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup. It remains a record tally for a single tournament.

In total Fontaine put in 21 goals in 30 games for France and more than 250 goals in the French league before injuries ended his career at the age of 28.

He died on 1 March, aged 89.

Gérard Pélisson, hotel mogul

Entrepreneur Gérard Pélisson opened his first hotel in northern France in 1967 and would go on to co-found one of the world's biggest accommodation chains.

He and his business partner were responsible for creating Accor, the group that now owns 5,400 hotels in 100 countries under the Novotel, Ibis, Sofitel, Mercure and Pullman brands.

He died on 6 March, aged 91.

Roland Castro, utopian architect

Architect and activist Roland Castro, who fought what he called "urban apartheid" in France's working-class suburbs, died on 9 March. He was 82.

A prominent figure in the May 1968 student protests, he went on to dedicate his architectural practice to combatting social exclusion by improving poor housing – believing that buildings only functioned "when they gave the person living in them a good impression of themselves".

Roland Castro in the Caravelle neighbourhood of Villeneuve-la-Garenne outside Paris, on 3 February 2006. © AFP / JACQUES DEMARTHON

Claude Lorius, pioneering climatologist

French glaciologist Claude Lorius is considered one of the founders of modern climate science.

His research on polar ice in Antarctica demonstrated the link between climate change and greenhouse gases, helping prove humanity's role in global warming.

He died on 21 March at the age of 91.

Françoise Gilot, painter who partnered Picasso

French painter Françoise Gilot, who died on 6 June at the age of 101, spent more than 60 years creating artworks – but she was best known for her rocky relationship with the much older Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.

His companion from 1946 to 1953, Gilot stood up to the giant of modern art and was the only woman to leave him of her own accord. She later established herself as a renowned painter in her own right.

French painter Francoise Gilot poses in her atelier in Paris, on April 6, 2004. © AFP / JEAN-PIERRE MULLER

Nahel Merzouk, teenage driver shot by French police

Not a public figure during his life, Nahel Merzouk's death rocked France.

The 17-year-old was shot dead by police during a traffic stop outside Paris on 27 June, prompting international outcry and days of rioting.

The incident placed police violence and racial profiling in sharp focus, reviving calls for a serious re-examination of France's policies.

Léon Gautier, last D-Day veteran

Léon Gautier was the last surviving Frenchman to participate in the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, which helped turn the tide against Nazi Germany in World War II.

Having joined the navy at 17, he was one of around 200 fighters for Free France who took part in D-Day.

He died on 3 July, aged 100.

Milan Kundera, writer-philosopher in exile

Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, best known for his magical-realist novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, died at the age of 94 on 11 July.

He passed away in France, where he had lived for nearly half his life after fleeing the communist regime in his native country. A self-described Francophile, he embraced his new home and wrote his final works in French.

Jane Birkin, icon of French pop

Born in London, singer and actor Jane Birkin moved to Paris in her 20s and never left. She died here on 16 July, aged 76.

While she's remembered internationally as the partner of Serge Gainsbourg, over the span of a 50-year career she threw herself into the French musical tradition and carved out a unique space within la chanson française.

Jane Birkin in Deauville on September 12, 1985. © AFP / MYCHELE DANIAU

Annette Lajon, France's 'youngest resistant'

Annette Lajon followed her parents into the French Resistance at the age of 11, hiding materials for making false identity cards under her dolls at the family home in Normandy.

She died on 16 August aged 91.

Jean-Louis Georgelin, general in charge of rebuilding Notre-Dame

General Jean-Louis Georgelin – a career soldier chosen to oversee the reconstruction of Notre-Dame Cathedral – died unexpectedly in a hiking accident on 18 August. He was 74.

President Emmanuel Macron said that France had lost "one of its great servants".

French Army General Jean-Louis Georgelin in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, on April 14, 2020. © REUTERS - BENOIT TESSIER

Hubert Reeves, space scientist for the masses

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves died in Paris on 13 October, aged 91, after a life dedicated to explaining science to the public.

Born in Canada, he took up a position at France's national scientific research centre and wrote books, gave lectures and made TV appearances bringing the story of the cosmos to life.

Jacques Delors, European founding father

Former European Commission president Jacques Delors passed away on 27 December at the age of 98.

Considered one of the founders of the modern European project, he was instrumental in the creation of the euro, freedom of movement accords and the Erasmus study-abroad scheme.

Jacques Delors appearing on French radio on 24 January 1982. © Bernard CHARLO / Getty Images
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