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Life and times of Valery Giscard d’Estaing

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Valery Giscard d’Estaing


Valery Giscard d’Estaing, 94, a former conservative President of France has died of COVID-19. He became President of France in 1974 vowing to transform his tradition bound, politically polarized country only to be thrown out of office seven years later after failing to accomplish his goals. He died on December 2, 2020 at his family home in central France.

A polished product of France’s best schools, Valery had been encouraged to believe that it was his destiny to rule France. And that he did, swiftly. But by the time he was ousted from the Presidency in 1981, defeated roundly from re-election by the socialist Francois Mitterrand, few people in France ascribed any greatness to him.
   
Valery had come to office declaring he would hold the overbearing presidency he inherited from Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou and make it more responsive to the will of the people. But the French government remained centralized and the power it gave the French president remained far greater than that enjoyed by his European and American counterparts- a point Mitterrand was sure to remind the voters during the campaign. As president Valery was hindered by an economic slowdown in Europe after more than two decades of continuous post war expansion. A demographic shift had resulted in a larger segment of French aging population being supported by an active smaller base- a situation which became more acute throughout Europe during the Economic depression set off in 2008.

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But he drew praise for presiding over an expansion of nuclear power that supplied France with abundant cheap electricity which helped French industries remain competitive. Moreover, he was at his best in Western European affairs. President Giscard d’Estaing pushed for the establishment of the Council of Europe where heads of government met regularly. And the Franco-German alliance, a cornerstone of European unity after World War 11, was at its strongest under him, thanks to his friendship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany.

Valery was born on February 2, 1926, in Koblenz, Germany, where his father, Edmond was serving as a finance ministry official for the French occupation of the Rhineland after World War 1. His mother May Bardoux claimed to be a descendant of Louis XV, the Bourbon king who ruled France from 1715 to 1774. Edmond Giscard traced his lineage to a noble family that thrived before the French Revolution. Still a teenager during World War 11, Valery joined a tank regiment of the Free French Forces as Allied troops advanced into Germany in 1945. He received both the Medal of War and bronze Star.
   
After the war, he graduated on top of his class in Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale  d’Administration, the elite institutions of higher learning that trained generations of technocrats running the French government bureaucracy. On graduating, 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 central France. They had another house in Auteuil, one of Paris’s most fashionable neighborhoods. They had two sons and two daughters.

Mr Giscard d’Estaing began his rapid ascent to power in 1953 with a stint in the Finance ministry as an administrative aide to Prime Minister Edgar Faure. He then won election to the National Assembly in 1956, representing Auvergne, 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 President de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1959, he invited Valery to join the Finance Ministry. Three years later de Gaulle elevated him to finance minister. At 34, he was the youngest official ever to fill the post. He immediately impressed Parliament by delivering his first budget speech extempore.

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Valery embraced Gaullist policies. He sought to limit American influence in Europe by calling for alternatives to the dollar, a precursor to the adoption of the euro, 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 popularity of their finance minister’s domestic policies. While Valery succeeded in cutting the annual inflation rate, his austerity policies – cuts in public spending, tax increases and wage and price controls- fostered a recession that drew cries of outrage from business and labour; in January 1966, he was summarily dismissed as finance minister. It was the only setback in his career and life.

Forming a moderate conservative political faction of his own, Valery then campaigned against the aging de Gaulle on 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 him, Valery nonetheless formed an alliance with Pompidou, a de Gaulle protege, who went on to win election as president in 1969. President Pompidou then rewarded Valery by appointing him finance minister a second time. When Pompidou died of cancer in 1974, Valery emerged the conservative coalition’s candidate for president against a powerful Socialist-Communist alliance led by Mitterrand.

In the closest and most exciting election in French history, Giscard d’Estaing gained a razor- thin victory margin of about 425,000 votes out of 25.8 million ballots cast. Thus, at 48 he became the youngest head of state since Napoleon. His grace and intelligence led pundits to call him the “Gallic Kennedy.” Valery built his grandeur by casting himself less pompous than his predecessors. For formal occasions he wore a business suit instead of buttoning his tall, slender frame into the traditional morning coat or military uniform. Occasionally, he played romantic tunes on an accordion for television crews.

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His sagging image started with huge spurts in global oil prizes, first in 1973 and again in 1979 leading to sharp increases in oil costs provoking an economic recession throughout Western Europe. Valery replied by committing France more than any other country, to nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants provided almost all electricity, sharply reducing oil imports. He also saw that government provided more subsidies, and channeling investments to large private corporations in the manufacturing of aircraft, high speed trains, automobile and other industrial sectors deemed important for economic competitiveness.

But the economy slowed, yet expectations among the French remained high, because the post war era left them with free education to the university level, free medical care, subsidized housing, generous pensions and unemployment benefits that equalled an employee’s last salary. Much to the displeasure of the public, government was forced to pursue an austerity programme of closing the gap between public spending and revenue. As expected, unemployment rose steeply among the young. In his re-election campaign every scare tactic failed. Years of austerity and rising discontent against Valery brought Mitterrand his socialism to power in 1981.
 
After being ousted from the presidency, Giscard d’Estaing remained active in politics. He returned to the National Assembly several times from his Auvergne constituency. In his closing years, he took an active role in European Union politics. He staunchly opposed attempts by Turkey to become a member of the European Union; on the grounds that it was a Muslim, non-European nation. He thus became the first European politician of high rank to voice that position publicly. Since then, Turkey’s membership of the EU remains stalled over human rights, immigration and rule of law concerns. In his last interview with the French daily, Le Monde, in 2002, over the matter, he said, “it would mean the end of Europe.”

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