Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of French oil company Total, has died in an air crash in Moscow.
His corporate jet collided with a snow plough and then was engulfed in flames. All four people on board were killed.
The driver of the snow plough was drunk, according to Russian investigators.
Mr de Margerie, 63, had been chief executive of Europe’s third largest oil company since 2007. He was highly regarded within the oil industry.
A statement from the office of French President Francois Hollande said: “Christophe de Margerie dedicated his life to French industry and to building up the Total group. He made it into one of the very top global companies
“Francois Hollande cherished Christophe de Margerie’s independent character, original personality and his devotion to his country.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences.
News agency Tass quoted a Kremlin spokesman as saying: “The President highly appreciated de Mergerie’s business skills, his continued commitment to the development of not only bilateral Russian-French relations, but also on multi-faceted levels.”
Christophe de Margerie leaves a large gap to be filled. He was a hugely influential figure in the global energy industry and a colourful and instantly recognisable character.
For colleagues as well as family, there’s no question that it’s a huge loss. But already the markets appear to think the company will cope. The board is seen as strong and a wobble in the share price seems to have been no more than that.
It is significant that Mr de Margerie was in Moscow. He took the view that the energy industry needed to go to difficult places. Russia is a prime example. A Total project there – a joint venture with Russia’s Lukoil to explore for shale oil – has come to a halt due to Western sanctions.
Mr de Margerie joined Total Group after graduating from the Ecole Superieure de Commerce in Paris in 1974.
At the company, where he had spent his entire career, he was nicknamed “Big Moustache”.
John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil, told the BBC: “It’s a huge loss to the industry and its future focus.
“What he has done for Total in repositioning the company to return to integrity and sound operations is deeply respected and highly regarded.”
According to Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper, Mr de Margerie had met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at his country residence outside Moscow to discuss foreign investment in Russia.
Total is an important player in the Russian energy market and Mr de Margerie was a staunch defender of maintaining ties, despite Western sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.
Total is one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia and is planning to double its output from the country by 2020.
It is working on the Yamal project, a $27bn joint venture to extract natural gas in northwest Siberia.
During his time at the helm of Total Mr de Margerie successfully defended the company against allegations of corruption around the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq.
He maintained the company’s investments in Burma and Iran despite US sanctions against those countries.
Shares in Total were down sharply at the open, but have since recovered.
Mr de Margerie’s jet had been due to fly to Paris from Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport.
Vnukovo, is located to the southwest of Moscow and is used by President Vladimir Putin and other government officials.
Russia’s emergencies ministry said in a statement the accident had involved a Falcon-50 plane shortly before midnight local time (20:00 GMT) on Monday.
“Among the chief versions for what happened, investigators are looking at a mistake by the air traffic controllers and the actions of the driver of the snow
plough. Apart from that, they will also check the versions of poor weather conditions and mistake by the crew,” said Russia’s Investigative Committee, a federal
agency that answers to President Putin.
“At the current time, it has already been established that the driver of the snow plough was drunk.”
Pictures from the scene show the driver looking shocked, but walking unaided and without any obvious serious injury.
Reports say the visibility at airport was 350m (1,150ft).
Total did not have a succession plan in place for Mr de Margerie, but in July he said that a replacement would come from inside the company.
The company plans to hold a board meeting as soon as possible.
Philippe Boisseau, in charge of Total’s new energy division, which is developing renewable energy sources, has been mentioned as one possible successor.
Patrick Pouyanne, president of Total’s refining and chemicals division, has also been named as a possible new boss.