Valery Giscard d’Estaing: French president who championed the European cause

The politician transformed his country’s economy but his popularity was short-lived

Jim Hoagland
Thursday 03 December 2020 14:02
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On the presidential campaign trail in 1974
On the presidential campaign trail in 1974

Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, worked for three decades to modernise his country’s institutions and create a centralised government for Europe – only to be voted out of office by a resentful nation.

A patrician reformer, Giscard directed the transformation of an insular, perpetually crisis-ridden French economy into a prosperous global high-tech exporter. He also opened French society to greater civil liberties, including no-fault divorce, the legalisation of abortion, a freer media and voting at 18.

But the French electorate refused him a second seven-year term in 1981 largely because of his self-indulgence and perceived character flaws. He often left the impression of looking down on the people he was trying to lift up from old habits and thinking. His defeat confirmed a prediction by president Charles de Gaulle, who made Giscard his finance minister in 1962: “His problem will be the people.”

Elected at 48 as the youngest French head of state since Napoleon, Giscard modelled his 1974 presidential campaign on John F Kennedy’s 1960 victory. He emphasised youth, vigour and centrist reforms to narrowly defeat his Socialist and Gaullist rivals. He enjoyed the echo of being identified as VGE in newspaper headlines.

“He was mesmerised by JFK – by his looks, war heroism, glamorous wife and his subtle influence over the media and image-making,” said Philippe Labro, a leading French novelist and journalist who has studied in the United States. “But VGE never possessed JFK’s charisma, and his self-absorption caused the French to fall out of love with him despite his brilliance and accomplishment.”

Giscard, who steered French foreign policy towards greater cooperation with the United States, visited America quietly and regularly as a private citizen. He particularly enjoyed driving through the open spaces of the American west.

“The French like Americans. They just don’t want to be dominated by them,” he said in a 2012 interview in his luxurious villa in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. The reflective conversation focused on his concerns about democracies becoming increasingly unmanageable.

“We assume that we will have good governments, and bad ones will be the exception,” he observed. “It is the reverse, especially now when representative democracy has produced truly incompetent governments in many places. Look at the European Union. Its biggest mistake was expanding too far too fast.”

He returned to that theme in 2014, saying most leaders today are “professional politicians. They have never done anything other than take positions and devise messages to gain votes.”

Giscard, who has died aged 94, turned to the European stage after losing the bitter campaign of 1981. He was later elected twice to France’s national assembly and held local and regional political offices, but he was never again a powerful force in the country’s politics.

Instead he devoted himself to a writing career, producing a well-received two-volume political memoir, trenchant policy books that accused the French of a self-defeating absolutist temperament that rejected gradual reform, and several romantic novels that reviewers routinely ridiculed.

This year, a German broadcaster accused Giscard of having touched her intimately without her consent when she went to interview him at his office in Paris in December 2018. The journalist, Ann-Kathrin Stracke, brought a legal complaint in March to the public prosecutor’s office. Through a spokesperson, Giscard denied the charge.

Between 2002 and 2004, he headed a Brussels-based parliamentary convention charged with drafting a constitution for the European Union. In interviews during that period, he voiced optimism about Europe’s ability to centralise its political and economic institutions under a strong executive branch.

Giscard (left) talks to Olivier Stirn on a plane in 1974

Giscard, who disclaimed any interest in becoming the future European president he had imagined, was an obvious choice to guide the convention. He had been instrumental in creating the 1972 fixed-exchange-rate arrangement that evolved in 1979 into the European Monetary System, the forerunner of today’s euro. He was also the founder of the annual summits of the world’s leading economic powers, which became known as the G7.

But politics once again foiled Giscard’s efforts. The EU’s draft constitution was jettisoned after France and the Netherlands voted “no” in 2005 referendums. Giscard’s authorship was not an important issue for the French in the voting, but neither was it of much help. Many of the draft’s provisions have, however, been adopted through treaties and national legislation of the EU’s current 27 member states.

Born on 2 February 1926 in Koblenz, Germany, where his father was posted as an economist serving in the French diplomatic service, he was christened Valery Marie Rene Giscard d’Estaing.

The aristocratic name d’Estaing had been officially added to that of his father, Edmond Giscard, a few years before Valery’s birth. Edmond owned land near a village called Estaing, but was not directly related to the village’s well-known titled family, which had run out of heirs.

In 1944, Giscard dropped out of college to join the French resistance and later the French army, serving in north Africa and Germany. He completed his studies in 1951 at the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (National School of Administration), organised by De Gaulle to train France’s elite civil service.

He quickly became chief of staff at the finance ministry and then won a national assembly seat representing Auvergne in 1956. Two years later, De Gaulle was given full powers to resolve the Algerian crisis and created the Fifth French Republic, serving as its first president.

He named Giscard deputy finance minister and promoted him to minister in 1962, when Giscard’s small Independent Republican party remained loyal to De Gaulle while other conservatives deserted him for accepting Algerian independence.

His open ambition and disagreement with the Gaullists over economic reforms led to the first of a series of party struggles that Giscard was either victim or perpetrator of throughout his career. Pushed out of the cabinet in 1966, he opposed De Gaulle’s unsuccessful referendum on administrative reforms, which led to the president’s resignation in 1969.

His energetic handling of the nation’s finances under Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle’s successor, made Giscard a leading contender when Pompidou died in office in 1974.

He seized his narrow margin of victory over Socialist Francois Mitterrand to implement a centrist programme of “change without risk”. Giscard also discarded much of the pomp at the Elysee Palace, being inaugurated in a business suit rather than formal attire and ostentatiously arranging to dine with “average French families” and immigrant workers.

At a Paris conference last year

Giscard’s symbolic gestures were trumped in public opinion by widely circulated stories of his autocratic behaviour in private, his display of a taste for luxury and big-game hunting, and an incessant womanising that broke into public view.

Especially damaging was a story published in 1979 by Le Canard Enchaine, a weekly devoted to satire and scandals that frequently turned out to be well informed. He was accused of accepting during his stint as finance minister an expensive diamond necklace as a gift from dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.

Giscard consistently denied that he had accepted an expensive necklace from Bokassa and suggested that he had turned any gift over to the state. He also once said that when Mitterrand was on his death bed, he had admitted to Giscard that “the only way we could beat you was to destroy you” with fabricated scandal. Neither the diamond story nor Giscard’s account of Mitterrand’s remarks has been officially confirmed.

The other scar that Giscard bore from the 1981 campaign was the failure of Gaullist Jacques Chirac to support him, and he became even more embittered when Chirac succeeded Mitterrand in 1995. The first of his successors whom he could tolerate was Nicolas Sarkozy.

Valery Giscard d’Estaing, French president, born 2 February 1926, died 2 December 2020

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