Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who brought about rapid social change after more than 15 years of strict Gaullism and was a leading force in laying the foundations of the European Union, died on Wednesday at the age of 94.
Although Giscard d’Estaing served only a single term as president from 1974 to 1981, his death marks the end of an era in French politics. Giscard d’Estaing was elected to office when he was just 48 years old and was the youngest leader of the Fifth Republic until Emmanuel Macron won the 2017 presidency at the age of 39.
During his seven years at the Élysée Presidential Palace, the conservative Giscard d’Estaing cultivated an image as a modern reformist. Nevertheless, his unpopularity among French voters led to a failed ombudsman against his socialist rival François Mitterrand.
After the loss, Giscard d’Estaing faded into obscurity. Once an icon of social change, he was soon forgotten by the French public. At a telling moment at Mitterrand’s funeral in 1996, a former minister, André Santini, struggled to remember that he was even alive. “I do not remember us doing the same thing for Giscard,” Santini said.
‘Giscard at the helm’
Decades before Macron founded his Republic on the Move party (La République en Marche or LREM), Giscard d’Estaing was already a president “on the go”. After a hard-fought presidential campaign, Giscard d’Estaing famously entered the Élysée on foot before a jubilant crowd on May 27, 1974.
“This day marks a new era in French politics … I will lead the change, but I will not lead it alone … I can still hear the French people complaining and asking us for change. “We will make this change with him, for him, with respect for his number and diversity, and we will lead it, especially with his youth,” he said in his inaugural address.
At the time of his election, Giscard d’Estaing was far from unknown, having spent nearly two decades in the halls of power. He began his political career in 1956 as a Member of Parliament.
Young, handsome and charming, Giscard d’Estaing was appointed Minister of Finance by then-President Charles De Gaulle, a position he held under De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou.
After Pompidou’s death in 1974, Giscard d’Estaing began his own bid for the presidency and differed from his opponents with an innovative, new communication strategy: personal branding. For the first time ever, the French public was treated to pictures of a future president who went to the Alps, supported his favorite football team, played the accordion on TV or even posed in a swimsuit. He also enjoyed the support of French celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot, Johnny Hallyday and Alain Delon, who played campaign T-shirts and stickers with the popular slogan: “Giscard at the rod” (“Giscard à la barre”).
After throwing veteran Gaullist Jacques-Chaban Delmas out of the race in the first round, Giscard d’Estaing scored with voters during a second round of debates with Mitterrand when, in response to an attack on his social policy, he praised: “You have nothing monopoly on the heart. “
A few days later, he barely won the presidency with 50.81 percent of the vote in what is still the closest election in the history of the Fifth Republic.
A liberal, reformist president
Once in service, Giscard d’Estaing wasted no time in pursuing his ambition to modernize French society. “France must become a huge reform project,” he explained at his first cabinet meeting.
Consistent with his words, change followed, sometimes even against the grains of his own conservative majority. During his administration, Giscard d’Estaing lowered the legal age of majority by 21 to 18, introduced divorce by mutual consent and facilitated the government’s control over the audiovisual sector. He also advocated the legalization of abortion, a measure that his health minister Simone Veil is advocating.
While Giscard d’Estaing succeeded in introducing social reforms, he faced many economic challenges, including rising unemployment after the oil crisis in 1973. In response, he appointed economist Raymond Barre as prime minister in 1976 and ushered in a period of austerity that would mark the end of his popularity as a leader.
His image was further weakened in October 1979 when a French investigative newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné, published revelations that the former Emperor of Central Africa, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, had secretly given Giscard d’Estaing diamonds in 1973 while still serving as finance. minister. The French president tried to downplay the scandal as nothing more than a simple gift he received when he performed his official duties and denied the reported value of the jewels.
But the damage happened. Public opinion turned to Giscard d’Estaing, who was now perceived as an out-of-touch aristocrat. His lifestyle came under harsh criticism, including his family background, his hunting parties and obvious fondness for castles.
To make matters worse, his first and only term of office was marked by strong divisions between his conservative base. This was perhaps best exemplified by his relationship with his first prime minister, Jacques Chiraq, who thought Giscard d’Estaing was arrogant and snobbish. The bitter rivalry between the two men exploded after Chiraq refused to support Giscard d’Estaing’s attorney in 1981, saying only that he would vote for him “in person”, essentially judging his campaign.
After his defeat against Mitterrand, Giscard d’Estaing was left humiliated. In a symbolic gesture, he left the Élysée Palace in the same way as he entered it, on foot. But instead of cheering this time, he was announced by protesters all the way to his car.
His tragic resignation from the presidency was only made more by his farewell speech, which has since become a thing of the French legend. Giscard d’Estaing solemnly turned to his countrymen while sitting hard at a desk decorated simply with a bouquet of flowers. At the end of the seven-minute monologue, the outgoing president pauses meaningfully before delivering a pronounced “Au revoir”. He then stands, both hands on the desk, turns and steps out of the room to a recording of the French national anthem, Marseillaise, and lets the camera film an empty chair for an ugly minute until the song ends.
Despite his abhorrent end, Giscard d’Estaing refused to retire from French politics. Hoping to start over, he ran for and won the position of General Councilor in the central city of Chamalières in 1982 before returning to Parliament two years later. In the late 1980s, there was much speculation that he was planning a comeback.
“I do not want you to say, ‘Giscard betrays us.’ If there are ever difficult circumstances or serious problems in our country, you can always trust me, he said in a TV appearance.
Still, his dreams of returning to the national stage were finally shattered after his former rival, Chiraq, took control of the country’s conservatives to win the presidency in 1995.
Advocates of the European Union
One of Giscard d’Estaing’s greatest legacies, however, may be his contribution to the creation of the European Union. A longtime supporter of a united Europe, he first expressed support for the idea while still a young Member of Parliament in 1957.
During its presidency, France took an active role in promoting the European project. In December 1974, he and then the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt created the European Council and launched a monetary system that would serve as a precursor to the euro. Giscard d’Estaing also approved the European elections by direct universal suffrage, paving the way for the first elections in 1979.
In 2001, with the support of Chirac, he was appointed President of the Constitutional Convention on the Future of Europe.
Giscard d’Estaing was also the origin of another international group: on November 15, 1975, he gathered representatives of the United States, Japan, France, West Germany and Britain at Rambouillet Castle west of Paris. The summit marked the first meeting with what would become known as the Group of Five – now the Group of Seven, or the G7, with the addition of Italy and Canada – an intergovernmental economic organization that meets every year.
Guardian of the French language
After retiring from politics, Giscard d’Estaing sought refuge in an unexpected outlet: literature. With the support of the French author Jean d’Ormesson, he was elected in 2004 to the Académie Française, which has the task of protecting the French language.
His membership in the Académie initially seemed to be as much politically motivated as literary. Until then, Giscard d’Estaing’s work consisted mainly of political essays and memoirs, with the notable exception of a semi-erotic novel entitled “Le Passage”, which tells a love story between a notary and a hitchhiker.
In 2009, he again tried to write with “The Princess and the President” (“La Princesse et le Président”), which describes the relationship between two characters similar to the deceased Lady Diana and himself. The book revived long-dormant rumors of a possible deal, despite Giscard d’Estaing’s insistence that he “settled everything”.
In 2012, an aging Giscard d’Estaing warned then-president François Hollande: “I could die during your presidency.”
“I do not want an official ceremony or a state tribute,” he added, just to make sure Hollande’s wishes were respected.
Perhaps Giscard d’Estaing hoped to leave this life as easily as he arrived at the Élysée almost 50 years ago.