AFP set off a storm on French media websites, including RFI’s, with the announcement that one of France’s richest and most powerful businessmen had died at his home in western France at the age of 62.
Even TF1 television, which is owned by the Bouygues conglomerate, carried the news on its website briefly, before issuing a denial.
“The Bouygues group categorically denies that its CEO is dead and deplores the fact that such a rumour has been allowed to spread,” read a statement from the company, which has interests in construction, media and telecoms.
Red-faced bosses at AFP ordered an investigation into how the mistake came to be made and issued an apology to all concerned.
"We offer our humblest apologies to Martin Bouygues, his loved ones, his group and all our clients," global news director Michèle Léridon said.
The agency said it received a tip-off that Bouygues had died at his home in the Normandy village of La Roche-Mabile, around midday Saturday and asked its bureau in Rennes, which covers the area, to seek confirmation.
A journalist then phoned Michel Julien, the mayor of nearby Saint-Denis-sur-Sarthon, who appeared to confirm the death, and the agency issued a dispatch quoting him to that effect.
Julien has since said that the journalist simply asked him of “ Monsieur Martin” had died, without giving a family name, and that he said yes because a man whose surname was Martin had indeed died that morning.
“Obviously we should have then waited for confirmation from the Bouygues group,” Leridon admitted after the error came to light.
AFP chairman and chief executive Emmanuel Hoog also apologised, in a tweet, to Bouygues and his family for the "unacceptable error".
An internal memo from Léridon, made public by Libération newspaper, admits that “the inaccurate information does us considerable harm in terms of our credibility and image” and orders staff to be more careful in future.
The incident illustrates the pressure on media to be first with the news, which has been increased by the development of the internet, and the speed with which reported events spread on the world wide web.