She was born in Geneva, and left school at 14 to learn secretarial skills. She got a job at a bookshop in Paris, found work as a continuity girl on some of France's best-known films, including Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion; and quickly graduated to screenwriter, then assistant director. During the second world war, she was jailed by the Gestapo at Fresnes prison and narrowly escaped being deported, like her younger sister Douce.
Post-war, Giroud was hired by Hélène Gordon Lazareff for her new women's magazine, Elle, whose editor-in-chief she became within months; she also produced some of France's best sketches for France Soir and France Dimanche.
Giroud will primarily be remembered, though, for creating L'Express in 1953, initially a campaigning weekly opposing colonial war in Indo-China and Algeria. She set it up with her married lover, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, maverick scion of a publishing family. The duo transformed it with great success 10 years later, adapting the glossy Time/News-week newsmagazine formula in France.
When Servan-Schreiber's first wife, the novelist Madeleine Chapsal, finally left him in 1960, he married a younger writer: Giroud made a much-publicised suicide attempt. She went into psychoanalysis, aged 40, in 1966, with the charismatic Jacques Lacan. Years later, she wrote in her memoirs, Leçons Particulières (Private Lessons): "Had I met Lacan when I was 25, my entire life would have been different. I would have loved different men, I would not have created L'Express."
Giroud was famous for her elegant, spare writing style. She contributed to the political demise of Gaullist premier Jacques Chaban Delmas when she dismissed his 1974 candidacy for the presidency: "You don't shoot an ambulance." Unlike Servan-Schreiber, she was a workaholic perfectionist who would rewrite copy and polish headlines far into the night before sending out the week's L'Express to the printers. She encouraged a new generation of women journalists, helping them polish their writing and personal style, then sending them to ferret out stories from France's notoriously vain male politicians.
Yet she never called herself a feminist, rarely believing in the frontal attack. Her women journalists were competent, often talented; but they were also notorious for their affairs with politicians and business tycoons. A former Giroud protégée who refused to play this game turned to foreign reporting, in which she was equally encouraged by Giroud.
Giroud, a lifelong left-winger, crossed party lines in 1974 when she agreed to become president Giscard d'Estaing's junior minister for women. Servan-Schreiber, with whom she worked at L'Express until he started his own Radical party in 1969, was in the same cabinet, as minister for reforms, a job he held for 13 days. Giroud was made of sterner stuff, and having tested the limits of her portfolio (the most important feminist reform, the liberalisation of abortion, was defended in the Assemblée Nationale in 1975 by health minister Simone Veil), she stayed on in politics in the 1976 Barre cabinet as minister for culture.
By 1978 she left, and in 1981 she voted for her Socialist friend François Mitterrand, whose portrait as a promising politician she had been the first to sketch in France Dimanche in 1951.
From then on she returned to writing. In 1974, Servan-Schreiber had sold L'Express from under her to a conglomerate: Giroud soon found a home at its left-leaning rival, Le Nouvel Observateur, writing a weekly column from 1983 until last week.
She also wrote some 30 books of varying quality: forgettable biographies; a few romans à clef (the most notable, Le Bon Plaisir, told the thinly veiled story of Mitterrand's lovechild, which Giroud had always forbidden her journalists to break: Giroud wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation). There were several first-rate memoirs, in which her unique voice can be heard: Le Journal d'Une Parisienne, the ferocious La Comédie du Pouvoir, on her ministerial experiences, and On Ne Peut Être Heureux Tout Le Temps (One can't always be happy).
She married briefly in the 1950s: her son died in an accident, and she is survived by her daughter, the child psychoanalyst Caroline Eliacheff. Over the last 30 years, her constant companion was the late editor and publisher Alex Grall.
· Françoise Giroud, journalist and politician, born November 21 1916; died January 19 2003
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