Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who has died at the age of 94, was one of the outstanding political figures in postwar France and on the wider European stage.
A liberaliser at home, where he became the Fifth Republic’s youngest president, until Emmanuel Macron in 2017, he also played a significant part in furthering European integration, notably by fostering the idea of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and, later, by campaigning for French acceptance in a referendum of the 1992 Maastricht treaty that led to the creation of the euro.
Yet the EU’s subsequent draft constitution, produced by a convention that he chaired, was voted down by his fellow French citizens and by the Dutch before its reforms finally found a home in the Lisbon treaty of 2009. The referendum defeats in 2005 shook the entire Union and exposed the gap between the people and the Brussels elite.
Elected as president of France in 1974 at the age of 48, Giscard put through landmark social legislation during his seven-year term in the Elysée. He also founded the Republican party, which in turn became the core of the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF), the federation of non-Gaullist parties on the centre-right of French politics. In addition he launched some major infrastructure projects, including the TGV high-speed train system and nuclear power stations destined to become the main source of French energy.
Yet he had the misfortune of holding presidential office in the aftermath of the first “oil shock” of the early 1970s and during the second one later that decade. He paid the price by losing the Elysée to François Mitterrand in 1981.
As Giscard subsequently admitted when he was ousted from office at the age of only 56, he was probably elected to the presidency too young. Thereafter he found it hard to find a satisfactory role.
However, Giscard’s place in the history of the EU is assured by his co-creation — together with his friend, Helmut Schmidt, who was German chancellor at the time — of the European Monetary System in 1978-79. More controversially, he also championed Greece’s entry into the EU and he played an important role in pushing through direct elections to the European Parliament.
Aptly for a strong believer in the Franco-German relationship, Valéry Marie René Georges Giscard d’Estaing was born in 1926 in Koblenz, during the French occupation of the Rhineland, where his father, Edmond, was an inspecteur des finances, a member of the civil service elite. But within a year of his birth his family moved to the Auvergne in central France, where his mother’s ancestors had been in politics. He spent his early childhood in the Auvergne, which was to become his political base.
After serving as a teenager in the French resistance in the second world war and as a tank soldier in the final stages of the conflict, he returned to his studies in Paris, passing through both the elite Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. He thus started his working life virtually at the top.
In 1952 he married Anne-Aymone de Brantes, daughter of an aristocratic family, and the couple had two sons and two daughters. In the year of his marriage he became an inspecteur des finances, like his father. In 1956, shortly before his 30th birthday, he was elected to the Puy-de-Dôme constituency that his maternal grandfather had once held. Three years later, he began his long association with the finance ministry, first serving as junior minister to Antoine Pinay and Wilfred Baumgartner and then, at the age of 35, stepping into their shoes as finance minister. He was to hold this post for nine years in all, in 1962-66 and 1969-74.
Charles de Gaulle, the French war leader and founder of the nationalist movement that bore his name, never had any doubts about Giscard’s ability; Georges Pompidou was the only other person whom the general addressed with the words “when you are president of France”.
But de Gaulle also mistrusted this brilliant young man who could present his budget each year virtually without notes but whose family political roots lay in the liberal right that never assimilated itself to Gaullism. “One day he will betray me,” the general once said of Giscard. “Let’s hope he does it well.”
In fact, de Gaulle was the first to betray. In his search for someone to blame for imposing on him the indignity of having had to go into a second round of voting to win the 1965 presidential election, the general chose Giscard as scapegoat. De Gaulle had himself instituted an economic austerity plan in 1962-63, but blamed Giscard for keeping this plan in place for too long, hindering growth and alienating the voters.
Giscard reacted to his dismissal from the finance ministry with bitterness, refusing any other post from prime minister Pompidou and returning to the back benches to found his Federation of Independent Republicans in 1966. Paying de Gaulle back in his own coin, Giscard came out against the general’s referendum on regional reform in 1969, a move that may have tipped the balance against the motion and thus caused de Gaulle’s resignation.
Back at the finance ministry under President Pompidou, Giscard served two very different prime ministers: first Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a reformist left-wing Gaullist, then the orthodox Pierre Messmer. These divisive strains within the Gaullist party were to help Giscard when, on the sudden death of Pompidou in 1974, he announced his candidacy for the presidency.
Jacques Chirac led a revolt against Chaban-Delmas and in favour of Giscard. The Chirac revolt helped ensure Chaban-Delmas’s heavy defeat in the first round and probably accounted for Giscard’s narrow victory in the run-off, in which he gained 50.8 per cent against 49.2 per cent for François Mitterrand. Giscard repaid the debt by choosing Chirac, himself a future president, as prime minister.
The 48-year-old President Giscard brought in a new style and new reforms. Right from the start, he sought symbols to portray himself as the “citizen-president”, in contrast to the monarchical style of de Gaulle. He walked up the Champs Elysées during his inauguration, he decreed the Marseillaise should be played at a less frenetic, martial tempo, he shook hands with prisoners on a visit to a Lyon jail and early on in his term he whisked the Elysée garbage collectors in to have breakfast with him at Christmas. He also invited the citizenry to ask him to dinner and once a month accepted selected invitations.
More significant was his raft of social legislation, including laws liberalising contraception and divorce. Simone Veil, the courageous health minister, succeed in getting abortion legalised in early 1975. These “progressive” measures began to take their toll on the loyalties of Gaullists, who also believed Giscard’s move to lower the voting age to 18 from 21 was a gift to the Socialists. The Gaullist Chirac resigned as prime minister.
As his second prime minister, Giscard chose Raymond Barre, a non-party technocrat with whom he got on much better. Devoting himself more to foreign policy, Giscard largely left the prime minister to get on with restoring an economy battered by oil price rises and the combination of recession and inflation that came to be known as “stagflation”. In foreign policy, Giscard was a great believer in the power of personal relationships to influence the course of history. He instigated the regular summit meetings of leaders of the European Community and of the Group of Seven industrialised countries.
His assiduous cultivation of Leonid Brezhnev did not prevent detente breaking down and the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. But Giscard found a soul mate in Helmut Schmidt, the Social Democrat German chancellor with whom he formed a firm friendship — always conducted in English — of lasting consequence. Increasingly disenchanted with Jimmy Carter’s America and James Callaghan’s Britain, Schmidt was ready to override Bundesbank opposition to Giscard’s 1978 call for more solid European monetary co-operation.
In the end, they failed to persuade Britain to put sterling into the European Monetary System that was set up in 1979. In his memoirs, Giscard said Schmidt tried harder than he did to persuade Callaghan, but gave himself credit for the idea of a European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), limited to countries participating in the currency grid, but within the context of a general EMS organisation, open to all European Community countries including non-ERM members like the UK.
It was the increasing stability which the EMS gave European currencies over the 1979-89 decade that enticed governments to plan for complete monetary union in the Maastricht treaty. The economic effects of the second oil shock of 1979-80 were no worse than those of the first in 1973. But Giscard’s handicap was that while he had been able to campaign for change in 1974, he had little choice in 1981 but to run for re-election on the theme of continuity.
In addition, the reformer of yesteryear seemed to have grown more conservative and monarchical in his use or abuse of power. The scandal that marked him most was the 1979 disclosure of the diamonds that he had received from the Central African Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Eventually, Giscard gave his side of the story that the gems were of little value and had been sold for the benefit of charity. But this came out only in a 1991 book, long after Giscard’s silence on the issue probably tipped the balance against him in 1981, when he lost to Mitterrand. (In another book, the 2009 novel The Princess and the President, Giscard hinted at a love affair between himself and Princess Diana, but later confirmed it was fiction).
After his defeat, he did not abandon politics but started again near the bottom of the ladder. He got himself elected to represent a Puy-de-Dôme constituency in the National Assembly in 1984, to the presidency of the Auvergne region in 1986, and to the European Parliament in 1989. After four years in Strasbourg, he returned to his old seat in the National Assembly in 1993.
At the same time, Giscard’s hold on the Union pour la démocratie française (UDF) federation began to weaken while the younger Edouard Balladur’s star was rising.
Yet age did not diminish his willingness to take up new challenges. In 2002, at the age of 76, he took on the job of chairing a convention to draft a constitution for the European Union. Many thought he was too old for the job and that he had been nominated for it by President Jacques Chirac just to get him out of the way. Yet Giscard proved up to the task, exercising a mix of charm, guile and a certain authoritarianism that one would have expected from a former inhabitant of the Elysée.
The success of the convention, which ended in June 2003, in producing a near unanimous constitutional text, owed much to Giscard’s presidency. The constitutional blueprint was adopted with little further change by EU governments.
Yet Giscard and the politicians had reckoned without the people. The constitution was voted down by Giscard’s fellow countrymen in 2005. A few days later it was also rejected by the Netherlands, and it was not until 2009 that the Lisbon treaty containing its main elements for the reformed governance of the EU was signed after governments bypassed the awkward resistance of their voters to its provisions.
Giscard’s view of the voters’ verdict on his EU constitution left no room for compromise. In 2006 he said firmly: “The rejection of the constitutional treaty by voters in France was a mistake that should be corrected.” Small wonder that he was sometimes criticised as haughty and elitist.