Raymond Aubrac, one of the last surviving leaders of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War Two, has died aged 97, prompting a flood of tributes to a national hero.

Aubrac, whose spectacular rescue from captivity in 1943 was turned into a popular film, died on Tuesday evening at a military hospital in Paris, his family said.

These heroes of the shadows who saved France's honour at a time when it seemed lost are disappearing one after the other, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. We have a duty to keep the memory alive in the heart of our collective memory.

Aubrac's wife, Lucie, herself a resistance fighter who organised her husband's escape in 1943, died in 2007.

Aubrac was one of a group of underground fighters arrested in June 1943 by Klaus Barbie, feared head of the Gestapo in Lyon, alongside Resistance organiser Jean Moulin, who was tortured and killed.

Lucie organised an attack on a German truck transporting her husband and other Resistance members, and Aubrac managed to escape.

The couple fled to London, but Aubrac's parents, whom he had tried unsuccessfully to convince to leave for Switzerland, were arrested in France, deported and died at the Auschwitz camp.

Born Raymond Samuel in 1914 into a Jewish merchant family, Aubrac became a civil engineer before studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in the 1930s.

Influenced by Marxism, the young Aubrac and his wife joined the fledging Resistance against the Nazis and the collaborationist French Vichy government in 1940, helping to found a network in unoccupied southern France.

France has always been keen to play up the role of the Resistance, and draw a veil over its collaboration with Nazi Germany.

THE LAST GREAT WITNESS

General Charles de Gaulle, the exiled leader of the Free French Forces, called on citizens to resist in a radio address from London in 1940, exhorting them not to lose hope.

From the first day, from that appeal by De Gaulle on June 18, 1940, saying that losing a battle didn't mean we had lost the war, only one thing guided us: optimism, a belief in what we were doing and that we could change things, Aubrac told Le Monde newspaper in a March interview at his home.

Resistance members disrupted occupying German forces through sabotage and guerrilla warfare, blowing up bridges and rail tracks, disseminating clandestine information, and providing intelligence and aid to Allied forces, which were preparing a massive maritime invasion for D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The Aubracs helped launch an underground newspaper called Liberation.

The president of the Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France, Serge Klarsfeld, hailed Aubrac as the last great actor and last great witness of the Resistance.

They were a legendary couple, Klarsfeld told BFM-TV. They were exceptional people.

During the Vietnam War, Aubrac served as an intermediary between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh, who had befriended the couple two decades earlier.

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Paul Taylor and Myra MacDonald)