Valéry Giscard d'Estaing: The Eurovision gong contest

The arguments rage on about whether the ex-French president is the architect of the new Europe or the destroyer of 1,000 years of history. But one thing everybody is happy to agree on: as he makes one last bid for the history books, he's as grand, haughty and arrogant as ever
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The Independent Online

His balding head shiny in the television lights, his frame just a little stooped, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was in the best of humours on Friday, trailed by six camera crews and a posse of journalists around the antiseptic corridors of the European Parliament. He may have been out of the Elysée Palace for more than two decades, but the man who still uses the title "Monsieur le Président" is enjoying his return to the limelight. For now, at least, he has shed that most wounding of nicknames earned after his fall from power in France: "Monsieur Ex".

Modesty and self-doubt have never been hallmarks of the former French president who, when in office, routinely instructed the then prime minister, Jacques Chirac, to walk three paces behind him.

At 77, he is too old to learn new tricks even if he wanted to. No surprise, then, that when the architect of the new EU constitution published its draft preamble last week, it was not to everyone's taste.

"Flowery and pretentious", was the verdict of Andrew Duff, a member of Giscard's 105-strong convention on the future of Europe, who noted that the text proposes a vote of thanks from the people of Europe to the constitution's authors. Given Giscard's track record of hauteur, this is all too easy to ridicule, yet perhaps a little gratitude is called for.

His personality, grandeur and arrogance have enlivened the drab process of constitution-writing and brought intellectual and political weight to Europe's rudderless ship. When he took on his role last year it was said that only China would entrust a task of that kind to a man of such advanced years. But he has proved remarkably resilient. In the past couple of weeks, he has visited Downing Street for dinner, commuted between the Auvergne, Paris and Brussels, appeared on Breakfast with Frost, and stopped by in Aachen to pick up the Char-lemagne Prize for contributions to Europe.

As the convention he chairs reaches its denouement, a compromise is taking shape. In Britain his blueprint has been portrayed by Eurosceptics as the death knell for 1,000 years of history. In Brussels it has been attacked by Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, as "unambitious". Someone who can draw fire from both extremes of a visceral debate must be doing something right.

Despite his aristocratic bearing, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was born into an upper-middle-class family on 2 February 1926, just four years after his parents were authorised to use the "d" that defines his social status. Although the family came from the Auvergne, Giscard was born near Koblenz where his father was a civil servant with the post-First World War occupying force. Young Giscard's educational accomplishments were effortless and he graduated, inevitably, from the finishing school of the French élite, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, with honours. By the age of 28 he was on the prime minister's staff, and the post of finance minister was in his grasp at the age of 35.

In politics even the brilliant need luck, and that came Giscard's way with the premature death of President Pompidou from cancer in 1974. Giscard was the one credible centre-right candidate, and was swept to power. With France ready for a change from Gaullism, he filled the vacuum, styling himself as a modernising influence.

His presidency notched up its achievements, including social reforms at home and initiatives in Europe. In alliance with Helmut Schmidt, the German Chancellor, he helped create the European Monetary System (forerunner of the single currency) and the European Council, where EU leaders meet.

But his term was marred by a long-running feud with Chirac - and several scandals, including a damaging episode in which vast spending by the Elf company on a fruitless oil exploration project was kept secret. More famously he accepted diamonds from Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, a dictator whose fridge was reputed to contain the bodies of his enemies stuffed with rice.

Try as he might - and he used to make a point of inviting dustmen to the Elysée - he never found the common touch. By the time polling day came in 1981, Chirac had resigned and his lukewarm support for Giscard may have cost the right the election, bringing the socialist François Mitterrand to office. At the conclusion of his farewell TV address to the nation, the outgoing president stood up and left his chair, and the screen, empty.

The void was felt more by Giscard than the nation, however, and it took several years for him to recover his appetite for politics. He regained his National Assembly seat in 1984, was elected to the European Parliament in 1989, and served again in the National Assembly from 1993-2002.

The Auvergne has remained a focus of his life but his international career seemed as dead as the extinct volcanos of Vulcania - a theme park in his Puy-de-Dôme constituency which he champions ardently. Yet when the EU decided it needed a serious revamp, up popped President Chirac promoting his old enemy for the job. At the time this was seen as a ploy to prevent Giscard meddling in Chirac's presidential re-election bid. But it may be that, as one official puts it, the two septuagenarians are now "beyond competition".

In Brussels Giscard has battled to overcome his handicaps: his love of grandeur, his age, and an almost universal reputation for arrogance. It has been an uphill struggle. His arrival was marked by a row over claims that he wanted payment of about €20,000 a month and a suite of grand offices. He ultimately refused a salary, settling for expenses sufficient to allow him to stay at one of the most exclusive hotels in Brussels, the Conrad.

As a politician who rose to power in the 1970s, he has struggled to find references for a 21st-century audience. Demonised by the British tabloids, he has likened their output to PG Wodehouse fiction. Not, perhaps, the most up-to-date riposte to the Daily Mail, which produced two pages of dog-eared scandal about his past.

More seriously, he has failed to convince his convention of 105 politicians that he has taken much notice of them. As one member put it: "He has the ability to listen to 20 people, 19 of whom have said something different to him, and then to declare: 'I am glad you all agree with me.'"

His critics include Mr Prodi and his famous predecessor-but-one, Jacques Delors. "Not every architect [of Europe] is a good mechanic," was Delors' verdict.

But the formidable cast of enemies do not include Tony Blair. The Prime Minister dithered over the original selection of Giscard but in the end backed him.

At dinner in Downing Street 10 days ago, Giscard told Mr Blair that the word "federal" would be excised from the constitution text, and the atmosphere was described as "extremely warm". Mr Blair's aides believe that, by and large, Giscard has delivered for them.

For all his faults he will probably produce a document that is balanced enough to be accepted by EU heads of government. It will probably usher in sufficient change to keep the EU's creaking show on the road when 10 more nations join next year, and therefore win Giscard the place in history he craves.

The real criticism is not that he is destroying British sovereignty but that he has been too conservative. For example, he has ducked the big, politically explosive questions such as whether an EU of 25 states should continue with a costly Common Agricultural Policy, and his blueprint fails to axe talking shops such as the EU's Economic and Social Committee, the role of which remains a mystery even to many in Brussels.

Instead, his draft constitution is an elegantly crafted and pragmatic institutional compromise designed to win favour at Europe's high table. That, after all, is Giscard's spiritual home.