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Letters to Paris: 'France in Mourning'

The Croft Magazine // This week's Letter to Paris is an obituary to the former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // This week's Letter to Paris is an obituary to the former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

6th December, 2020

President Macron has declared this Wednesday a day of national mourning. The former President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, died last week after contracting coronavirus. Though he served just one term as president (1974-1981), his life was one of public service and loyalty. His patriotism, both to France and Europe, will be remembered fondly.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was born in 1926. Attending the top schools of Paris, he joined the French Resistance and, on Liberation, the French army. Leaving the army, he passed through the École Nationale d’Administration, emerging an inspector of finance.

He was spotted by President De Gaulle in 1959, who appointed him to the finance ministry. With a taste of the pinnacle of power, he pinned his sights on the Élysée. To succeed, he distanced himself from De Gaulle, speaking against the 1969 referendum. But when De Gaulle resigned, Giscard d’Estaing kept on good terms with his successor, President Pompidou, who appointed him finance minister. When Pompidou died, he felt his hour had come. He announced his candidature for the presidency, easily knocking out the Gaullist candidate in the first round. In the second, he squeezed past Socialist candidate François Mitterrand, assisted by the backing of Jacques Chirac, whom he rewarded with the post of prime minister.

Arc de Triomphe | Epigram / Xander Brett

Giscard d’Estaing abandoned the pomp of the presidency, famously becoming the only president to walk to his inauguration. He played the accordion on television, visited bistros and had dinner in ordinary homes. He also became known for giving breakfast to dustmen and shaking hands with prisoners. Like both his predecessors and successors, he pursued several affairs in office. It was reported that when engaged in a liaison, he left a sealed letter with an aide stating his whereabouts in case of emergency. But this informal approach didn’t wash. He soon succumbed to a monarchic style, insisting on being served first, even in the presence of state guests. Politically, too, his policies started strong and declined. He legalised abortion, relaxed laws on divorce and lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. But when arguments with Chirac forced him to choose a new prime minister, his policy of semi-austerity gained little momentum.

Giscard d’Estaing was to become a one-term president, something history seldom remembers. Though he led his nemesis Mitterrand in the 1981 polls, he gave a tired campaign. His wife was heard remarking to friends that he wished he could retire. So, while the press made much of ‘corruption’ after Giscard d’Estaing accepted diamonds from dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa, his defeat was due more to boredom than scandal. He left office quietly, returning to his family château in the Auvergne. He was, nevertheless, disappointed with his defeat. Chirac had failed to support him, something he described as “premeditated betrayal”.

But, aged 55, his political career was not yet over. At 76, he was chosen to lead a convention tasked with presenting the European Union’s first constitution. For this, he demanded a luxury suite in Brussels, along with generous expenses, private staff and a salary of €250,000. It was not greed, he insisted, only that “things should be comfortable”. The constitution was rejected, and he once more withdrew to a home in the Loire.

He reappeared in 2016 to declare Brexit a “backward step”, though he admitted Europe had managed without Britain, and would do so again. A year later, he was seen dining at the Garrick, touring the club, then aged 91, well after midnight. He made public appearances, but largely kept out of the limelight. Aged 94, though killed by the pandemic, his death was peaceful. Already buried during a small gathering, on Wednesday France mourns both a public servant and an example of moderation. The condolences of Great Britain are with them.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett

Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.