Valéry Giscard d’Estaing obituary: Aspired to modernise France as president

Modern-minded conservative was at his best in EU affairs

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing became president of France in 1974 vowing to transform his tradition-bound, politically polarised country. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing became president of France in 1974 vowing to transform his tradition-bound, politically polarised country. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

 

Born: February 2nd, 1926

Died: December 2nd, 2020

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing died on Wednesday at his family home in the Loir-et-Cher area of central France aged 94. He was a modern-minded conservative who became president of France in 1974 vowing to transform his tradition-bound, politically polarised country, only to be turned out of office seven years later after failing to accomplish his goals or to shed his imperious image.

His foundation said the cause was complications of Covid-19.

The scion of families that traced their lineage to French nobility and a polished product of France’s best schools, Giscard d’Estaing had been encouraged to believe that it was his destiny to rise to the pinnacle of government. And he did, swiftly.

But by the time he was ousted from the presidential palace in 1981, roundly defeated in his reelection bid by socialist François Mitterrand, few French were ascribing greatness to him.

Giscard d’Estaing had come to office declaring that he would take hold of the overbearing presidency he had inherited from Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou and make it more responsive to the will of the people – soften it.

But the French government remained centralised under his administration and the power it gave the French president remained far greater than that enjoyed by his western European and American counterparts – a point of which Mitterrand was sure to remind voters in the campaign. He plainly alluded to Giscard d’Estaing’s aristocratic mien in asserting that the president had behaved like “a sovereign monarch with absolute power”.

As president, Giscard d’Estaing was hindered by an economic slowdown in western Europe after more than two decades of almost continuous postwar expansion. But he drew praise for presiding over an expansion of nuclear energy that supplied France with abundant cheap electricity and helped its industries remain competitive. And while he had a mixed, often disappointing record in foreign policy, he was at his best in western European affairs.

Giscard d’Estaing pushed for the establishment of the European Council, where heads of government met regularly. And the Franco-German alliance, a cornerstone of western European unity after the second World War, was at its strongest under him, thanks largely to his close friendship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany.

The early years

Valéry Marie René Georges Giscard d’Estaing was born on February 2nd. 1926, in Koblenz, Germany, where his father, Edmond, was serving as a finance ministry official for the French occupation of the Rhineland after the first World War. His mother, May Bardoux, belonged to a family active in conservative politics; she claimed to be a descendant of Louis XV, the Bourbon king who ruled from 1715 to 1774. Edmond Giscard traced his lineage to a noble family that thrived before the French Revolution.

Giscard d’Estaing attended the prestigious Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris. Still a teenager during the second World War, he joined a tank regiment of the Free French Forces as Allied troops advanced into Germany in 1945. He received both the Croix de Guerre and the bronze star.

After the war, he graduated near the top of his class in the École Polytechnique and the École Nationale d’Administration, the elite institutions of higher learning that trained generations of technocrats to run the government bureaucracy.

On completing his studies in 1952, he married Anne-Aymone Sauvage de Brantes, a descendant of a steel dynasty. Each brought a chateau to the marriage, his being near the city of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region of central France. They had another house in Auteuil, one of Paris’s most fashionable neighbourhoods. They had two sons, Henri and Louis Joachim, and two daughters, Valérie-Anne and Jacinte. (Information on survivors was not immediately available.)

Giscard d’Estaing began his rapid ascent through government in 1953 with a stint in the finance ministry and as an administrative aide to prime minister Edgar Faure. He then won election to the National Assembly in 1956, representing Auvergne in a seat that had been held by his maternal grandfather and great-grandfather. He soon earned a reputation as a brilliant technocrat and a polished speaker.

When de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1959, he invited Giscard d’Estaing to rejoin the finance ministry. Three years later, de Gaulle elevated him to finance minister. At 34, he was the youngest official ever to fill that post. He immediately impressed parliament by delivering his first budget speech without notes.

Giscard d’Estaing embraced Gaullist policies. He sought to limit US influence in Europe by calling for alternatives to the dollar in global trade and finance. He warned about the growing presence of American corporations in Europe. But de Gaulle and his prime minister, Pompidou, were less enthralled by the popular reaction to their finance minister’s domestic policies.

While Giscard d’Estaing did succeed in cutting the annual inflation rate, his austerity policies – cuts in public spending, tax increases, and wage and price controls – fostered a recession and drew cries of outrage from business and labour; in January 1966 he was summarily dismissed as finance minister. It was the first setback in his career, perhaps in his life, and he still sounded crushed when talking about the incident years later.

“I was sacked like a servant,” he told the Observer in 1972. Critics pointed out that in fact he had been a civil servant.

Forming a moderate conservative political faction of his own, Giscard d’Estaing then campaigned against the aging de Gaulle on an issue, parliamentary reform, that ended de Gaulle’s political life in 1969 through a popular referendum. De Gaulle immediately stepped down after a majority of the French voted against it.

While many Gaullists never forgave Giscard d’Estaing, he nonetheless formed a political alliance with Pompidou, a de Gaulle protégé, who went on to win election as president in 1969.

The new president rewarded Giscard d’Estaing by appointing him finance minister a second time. When Pompidou died of cancer in 1974, Giscard d’Estaing emerged as a conservative coalition’s candidate for president against a powerful socialist-communist alliance led by Mitterrand.

‘Gallic Kennedy’

In one of the closest, most exciting elections in French history, Giscard d’Estaing gained a wafer-thin victory margin of about 425,000 votes out of 25.8 million ballots cast. At 48, he was the youngest head of state since Napoleon. His grace and intelligence led pundits to call him the “Gallic Kennedy”.

Much to the public’s displeasure, the government was forced to pursue an austerity programme to close the gap between public spending and revenue. Unemployment, particularly among young people, rose steeply.

In his re-election campaign, Giscard d’Estaing tried to draw an alarming picture of what life would be like under a left-wing government. “Adieu to the stability of the franc and the freedom of enterprise,” he asserted, “adieu to nuclear independence and France’s rank in the world – we have seen it happen elsewhere; we would see it here as well.”

But the scare tactic failed. Years of economic austerity and rising discontent with the president’s style brought Mitterrand and his socialist-communist coalition to power in 1981.

After stepping down from the presidency, Giscard d’Estaing remained active in politics, returning several times to the National Assembly from his Auvergne district.

He re-emerged in the news this year when Ann-Kathrin Stracke, a reporter for WDR, a German public broadcaster, accused him of repeatedly groping her buttocks after an interview in 2018. His lawyer said that Giscard d’Estaing had no recollection of the incident. An official police investigation was opened but there has been no word on its status. – New York Times