Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president who worked for three decades to modernize his country’s institutions and create a centralized government for Europe — only to be voted out of office by a resentful nation and disappointed by the weaker European Union that emerged from his efforts — died Dec. 2 at his home in Authon, in central France. He was 94.
French Embassy spokesman Pascal Confavreux confirmed the death. Mr. Giscard’s foundation said the cause was complications from the novel coronavirus.
A patrician reformer, Mr. 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 legalization 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 Mr. Giscard his finance minister in 1962: “His problem will be the people.”
Elected at 48 as the youngest French head of state since Napoleon, Mr. Giscard modeled his 1974 presidential campaign on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 victory. He emphasized youth, vigor 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 mesmerized 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.”
Mr. Giscard, who opened French foreign policy toward greater cooperation with the United States, visited this country 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.”
Looking toward a united Europe
Mr. Giscard turned to the European stage after losing the bitter campaign of 1981. He was later elected twice to the National Assembly and held local and regional political offices, but he was never again a powerful force in French 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.
(Earlier this year, a German broadcaster accused Mr. 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 spokesman, Mr. d’Estaing denied the charge.)
He sought to return to the political spotlight by heading from 2002 to 2004 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 centralize its political and economic institutions under a strong executive branch.
Mr. 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 currency. He was also the founder of the annual summits of the world’s leading economic powers, which became known as the Group of Seven.
“He was ahead in understanding how the global economy was emerging and what needed to be done,” said George P. Shultz, who as U.S. treasury secretary worked with Mr. Giscard in the tumultuous economic aftermath of the Arab oil embargo of 1973.
But politics once again foiled Mr. Giscard’s efforts. The E.U. draft constitution was jettisoned after France and the Netherlands voted “no” in 2005 referendums. Mr. 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 E.U.’s current 27 member states.
Born on Feb. 2, 1926, in Koblenz, Germany, where his father was posted as an economist serving in the French diplomatic service, he was christened Valéry Marie René Georges Giscard d’Estaing.
The aristocratic name d’Estaing had been officially added to that of his father, Edmond Giscard, only a few years before Valéry’s birth. Edmond owned land near the village of Estaing in the central French Auvergne region but was not directly related to the village’s well-known titled family, which had run out of heirs.
The Giscards had aristocratic connections through the women of the family. Edmond’s wife, born May Bardoux, was descended from King Louis XV and one of his mistresses. Valéry’s distant cousin, Anne-Aymone Sauvage de Brantes, whom he married on Dec. 17, 1952, was of noble families. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
In 1944, Mr. 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), organized 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 French Fifth Republic, serving as its first president.
He named Mr. Giscard deputy finance minister and promoted him to minister in 1962, when Mr. 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 internecine party struggles that Mr. 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.
'My models were de Gaulle and Kennedy'
His energetic handling of the nation’s finances under Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle’s successor, made Mr. Giscard a leading contender when Pompidou died in office in 1974.
He seized his narrow margin of victory over Socialist François Mitterrand to implement a centrist program of “change without risk.” Mr. Giscard also discarded much of the pomp at the Élysée Palace, being inaugurated in a business suit rather than formal attire and ostentatiously arranging to dine with “average French families” and immigrant workers.
Mr. Giscard’s symbolic gestures were trumped in public opinion by widely circulated stories of his autocratic behavior in private, his display of a taste for luxury and big-game hunting, and an incessant womanizing that broke into public view.
Especially damaging was a story published in 1979 by Le Canard enchaîné, 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-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic.
Mr. 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 told this Washington Post reporter that when Mitterrand was on his death bed, he had admitted to Mr. Giscard: “The only way we could beat you was to destroy you” with fabricated scandal. Neither the diamond story nor Mr. Giscard’s account of Mitterrand’s remarks has been officially confirmed.
The other scar that Mr. 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, who Mr. Giscard accurately predicted in the January 2012 interview would lose his reelection attempt that May.
Sarkozy regularly called on Mr. Giscard “to test out his own ideas, not necessarily to receive or accept mine,” Mr. Giscard observed. “But he has no model for the presidency. You need one. My models were de Gaulle and Kennedy. De Gaulle appointed engineers to his cabinet, as I did. You need to construct things to succeed in governing.”
Something else united Mr. Giscard and Sarkozy.
“They thought they could do what American presidents do — reach over the parties, over the parliament, over the media and seduce an impressionable public,” said Philippe Faure, a retired French diplomat who long served in the United States. “But the French rebel against this star system.”
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