Joseph Sitruk, a former grand rabbi of France for more than two decades who oversaw a growth in synagogues and Jewish schools, has died after a long illness. He was 71.

President Francois Hollande's office announced Sitruk's death. In a statement Sunday, Hollande praised Sitruk as a "defender of secularism" who left an indelible legacy for French Judaism. Sitruk was hailed as "a tireless fighter against racism and anti-Semitism" by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who oversees religious affairs.

Born in French-controlled Tunisia in 1944, Sitruk was grand rabbi of France from 1987-2008, spiritual leader for Europe's largest Jewish community. He was active internationally, and led efforts encouraging French Jews to attend synagogue and embrace Judaism.

A memorial ceremony is being held Sunday night in a Paris synagogue.