Louis Giscard d’Estaing, a former two-term deputy representing Puy-de-Dôme in the Assemblée Nationale, mayor of Chamalières and son of former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, kicked off his latest campaign Tuesday afternoon. In Bethesda.
Flanked by two 20-year-old campaign volunteers in European knotted scarves and sharp fitted suits, Giscard, the newly declared candidate to represent French expatriates in North America, stepped out of a black Chevy Suburban at the Lycée Rochambeau French International School off Beach Drive. He had sunglasses tucked in the breast pocket of his checked blue suit, black tufts fringing his bald dome and campaign talking points ready for the political power broker in the headmistress’s office.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if it really works out,” he said with an accent and a shrug.
France last year joined Italy, Angola, Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic and about a dozen other nations in allowing “représentation sans habitation.” The 54-year-old political scion is running for one of the 11 parliamentary seats (out of 577) created last year to represent French citizens in foreign districts, each drawn to include about 150,000 voters. The North American constituency includes Canada and the United States. Great Britain is so full of Frenchmen that it warrants its own district. By contrast, one deputy will represent all of Asia, Russia and Australia. Constituency services could prove difficult.
America is far from foreign to Giscard. His late wife was American, he speaks fluent English, and he has a son with dual citizenship. Nevertheless, the strangeness of campaigning in a strange land is not lost on him.
“It’s outside France,” it’s a special election, “and the community is scattered over a huge territory in two countries,” he said. “It’s different.”
Campaigning stateside is also something, he said, that he had not foreseen. Last year, he lost his election in the region of Auvergne. (“Louis Giscard d’Estaing perd le fief familial,” read a headline in the news magazine Le Point). But then he caught a break. Last month, the Constitutional Council of France, on which his father sits, unseated the North American district’s first representative, Corinne Narassiguin, a Socialist and 13-year-resident of New York, for improperly opening campaign bank accounts in the United States. It also barred her from public office for one year. (“My father wasn’t there that day,” Giscard noted in his defense.) The ruling opened an opportunity for Giscard, who said he started receiving e-mails from French members of the Union for a Popular Movement Party in North America imploring him to run.
Giscard had left the party after the disastrous rightward lurch of its leader, President Nicholas Sarkozy. He helped found a new party and will now challenge Frédéric Lefebvre, a former junior minister and Sarkozy ally, of whom Giscard does not think highly. (He recalled a trip to the Pentagon and meeting a famously antagonistic Defense undersecretary. “Douglas Feith? He’s that kind of character.”)
Last week, Giscard visited Montreal, which, after New York, has the highest concentration of French citizens in North America, to test whether he had sufficient support. He squeezed in a campaign swing through Washington to woo the area’s 9,000 voters, who will probably cast ballots in May.
Walking behind his two skinny-tied volunteers, one of whom asked not to be named (“I’m a staffer on the Hill,” the young man explained, proudly), he opened a door at the Lycée reading “escaliers” and climbed the stairs to the headmistress’s office. He sat at the head of a table under an abstract map of the United States. Catherine Lévy-Silveira opened a notepad filled with graph paper.
“You know the context for which I’m here,” he said. “I’m the future candidate.”
He spoke about how well he had come to know America in his capacity as a marketing executive for Moet Hennessy in New York in the 1980s (“For a year and a half, I traveled around the United States extensively. In the California Napa Valley and the Simi Valley.”) They discussed education policy and struck up a promising conversation about Saint-Nectaire cheese from the Auvergne region, which he represented and where she had worked.
“Right in the middle of France,” he said.
“Right in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
On the way out of the building he previewed his campaign pitch, complete with a printout that began “America, innately, is my second home.” He recalled how, at age 17, the year of the American bicentennial, his parents sent him to the United States to spend the summer with Bruce Sundlun, later the governor of Rhode Island. That he visited the White House and had a chat in the Oval Office with President Gerald R. Ford. (“The picture is on my Facebook page.”) He talked about his wife’s upbringing in Winston-Salem, N.C., where his family summered, and their flight back from Dulles to Paris in August 2011, a month before her death from cancer, and her funeral at the American Cathedral in Paris. He spoke of his 13-year-old son’s dual citizenship and the boy’s fondness for “historical sites — Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Yorktown.”
His phone rang. Jean-Louis Borloo, head of Giscard’s new party, was checking on his progress from France. Giscard said he’d be heading back to Canada the following week.
A few hours later, Giscard’s entourage arrived at Georgetown’s Avenue Suites hotel, where they held a meet-and-greet with French voters under a flat-screen television tuned to CNN. The candidate leaned in to talk with Nicole Hirsh, a grande dame of the French expat community, who wore a gold necklace and tailored blazer. She had flown up from West Palm Beach, Fla., for the event and was staying at the Cosmos Club.
The party paraded down a hallway decorated with head shots of movie stars and into a brightly lighted meeting room where Giscard stood at the head of a table, in front of a large portrait of Jeremy Irons.
Surrounded by 25 potential supporters, Hirsh introduced Giscard by calling his unexpected bid “une chance unique.” And the candidate launched his pitch, referencing his White House visits, his personal and professional experience in America and his leadership of parliament’s French-American caucus. He prompted a gasp in the room when he mentioned he had received a congressional delegation led by Eric Cantor.
After more than an hour of questions and answers, some citizens started texting and checking their Facebook pages. Hirsh looked at her watch, rolled her eyes and slipped out with a friend. She said she had known the Giscards for years, including the father (“he was always pro-American”) and called the son “our very best candidate.” She then asked to be accompanied to her car a few blocks away, because “my friend feels uncomfortable.” Asked where her friend had journeyed in from, the woman replied “PotoMAC.”
A few minutes after the women were safely in their car, Giscard wrapped up, offering his Web site address and some photocopies of a positive profile in Le Figaro. He said “merci,” received a round of applause and posed for some photos with students from the George Washington University French Club. (“He’s open to talking to the youth,” Grace Armstrong, the club’s secretary, said.)
As Giscard and some supporters prepared to hit the French bistro inside a nearby hotel, Flavius Mihaies, a World Bank staffer who had grilled Giscard on political and economic questions, liked what he saw. “He comes from a dynasty,” he said, “and that brings prestige and attention and is flattering for the French expats.”
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A previous version of this story online said Louis Giscard d’Estaing last year became the first Giscard to lose an election in the Auvergne region since 1946. This story has been corrected.