Valéry Giscard d'Estaing: The architect retreats to his castle

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The Independent Online

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had dreamt of passing into history as the founding father of a reborn Europe. The architect of the EU constitution may have seen himself as its first president.

Yesterday the former French president was keeping his thoughts to himself, having seen his hopes dashed by his own country's resounding rejection of the treaty he drafted.

M. Giscard d'Estaing, whose French presidential career was ended by an overwhelming defeat in the elections of 1981, continued to insist until the very last moment that French voters would approve the constitution.

After serving as president of the European Convention created in 2001 to draw up the new constitution, M. Giscard d'Estaing has tirelessly endorsed the treaty he expected to be his lasting political legacy.

Guest of honour at the official treaty ratification in Germany last Friday, M. Giscard d'Estaing optimistically declared that the "yes" would take 53 per cent of the vote in Sunday's referendum.

"There can be no other constitution for Europe," he said. "People know that we have the best treaty possible." Despite his buoyant predictions in the run up to the referendum, M. Giscard d'Estaing's fears for the eventual outcome became apparent with his interventions in the French "yes" campaign.

Earlier this year he expressed doubts about the decision of President Jacques Chirac - his political enemy - to ratify the treaty by referendum. "The French don't know how to vote on texts ... they only answer the question that they want to be asked."

Hostilities between the two men, dating back to their time in government together during the early Eighties, were revived in January when the former president suggested support from M. Chirac would do the "yes" campaign more harm than good.

In January M. Giscard d'Estaing worried publicly that the referendum would become "a poll on M. Chirac's popularity".

During his own centre-right presidency M. Giscard d'Estaing, or VGE is he is known, made many legal reforms, including legalising abortion, lowering the voting age to 18 and increasing mixed education in schools. He was also influential in the creation of the European Monetary System, which led to the euro.

But growing economic difficulties and accusations that he accepted diamonds from the leader of the Central African Republic contributed to his defeat by the Socialist François Mitterrand. His appointment as president of the European Convention was a second chance for M. Giscard d'Estaing, in his late seventies, to go down as a key figure in the history of Europe.