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So it was natural that Guy de Rothschild should feel it keenly when, in 1981, the country's Socialist government nationalised the entire structure - in exchange, as he put it, "for a total indemnity amounting to 80 per cent of the value of the building on the rue Laffitte".

It was a bitter blow - all the more so since critics suggested that, had Rothschilds remained an investment bank, it would never have been nationalised.

To emphasise the new status, a new building was constructed in rue Laffitte. The bank's oil interests in Algeria were nationalised; there were some disastrous property investments; and severe losses accrued from New Caledonian nickel.

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Léon Blum's Popular Front of 1936, with its self-declared war on The Two Hundred Families who dominated France, and its nationalisation of the railways, did not bode well for the Rothschilds.

But Guy de Rothschild was more disturbed by the anti-Semitism which the Front provoked, and the manner in which this strain mingled with French xenophobia to reject fugitives from Hitler's Germany.

The Rothschild businesses were most solidly established in London and Paris.

But whereas NM Rothschild & Sons had exploited London's pre-eminence as a financial centre to become an important merchant bank, in Paris de Rothschild Frères' operations were chiefly - and successfully - directed to the management of the family's own fortune.

Perhaps Guy de Rothschild's shrewdest move was to employ Georges Pompidou, the future President of France.

Within a very short time Pompidou was in charge of the business, where he remained until he became prime minister in 1962.

When Guy de Rothschild returned to Paris after the city's liberation in August 1944, he discovered only a dozen people manning the offices of de Rothschild Frères in the rue Laffitte.

Having recovered the family investments, he set about making the Rothschilds once more a force in France.

The Rothschilds had had the foresight, after the Munich agreement with Hitler, to open an office away from Paris at La Bourbole, near Clermont-Ferrand.

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