When a president disappears, it is an entire era and a country that lie on the autopsy table. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing died on Wednesday at his rural residence in Authon, in central France, from covid-19. He was 94 years old. And in France politicians and commentators set out to analyze the legacy of one of the most unpopular former presidents, a man whom very few already claimed, but who left a mark that continues to explain the France and Europe of 2020.
The death of who, between 1974 and 1981, was the first liberal president of the Fifth Republic, and the youngest at the time, coincides with the mandate of another president who conquered young power and with a reformist and liberal program. Giscard, who was left halfway through his renovations and left the Elysee palace amid boos, is a mirror, not always comfortable, for Emmanuel Macron. “If our society was modernized and opened, if our lives are freer, it is thanks to his courage as well,” the current president said Thursday in a televised message to the nation.
The other part of the Giscardian heritage is the European Union. And here, yes, the balance is clearer as a precursor, together with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, of the single currency and the current EU.
For some, Giscard had long been a political corpse. “I wonder if we are exaggerating with the funeral of François Mitterrand,” he said in 1996, when the socialist president, André Santini, a politician who had belonged to the center-right party that Giscard founded, died. Santini added wickedly: “I don’t remember we did so much with Giscard.” Who was it all had become irrelevant. Exactly from the day in 1981 that the socialist Mitterrand defeated him and he became a single seven-year president.
His aura of modernity – he looked at himself in the mirror of John F. Kennedy, of whom he kept in his office a portrait next to him when he was Minister of Finance with General Charles de Gaulle – had evaporated into the haughty air of an aristocratic and distant leader, involved in grotesque scandals such as that of the diamonds that the Central African dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa gave him. Its reformist momentum was crushed by the oil shocks and the end of postwar prosperity.
Now France turns its gaze to the Giscard years and sees other things, like that 1974 campaign in which, after the eternal years of De Gaulle and the epilogue of his successor, Georges Pompidou, a young man emerged. At 48, Giscard was one of the stagnant politicians of that time. I would break out with new ideas. He embodied a liberal right that, in France, was an anomaly. In power, he appointed Simone Veil, magistrate and survivor of Auschwitz, as Minister of Health. Veil defended the law decriminalizing abortion, Giscard’s most significant achievement in French politics. The refusal to abolish the death penalty – it was Mitterrand who abolished it in 1981 – demonstrated the limits of the liberalizing project.
Giscard’s legacy has been more applauded in Europe than in France. He established a unique complicity with the Social Democratic Chancellor Schmidt. In his memoirs, Power and Life, he recalls an emotional episode when, during a trip to Germany, Schmidt confessed a family secret that only his wife and one collaborator knew: “I have decided to tell you something (…). My father is Jewish ”. Trust helped build the embryo of what would be the euro decades later. The Franco-German engine rarely performed as well as it did then. In the Spain of the transition, he left many misunderstandings and a long list of those aggrieved by the blockades that he imposed during the accession negotiations to the European Community.
The last to enter
His European career was prolonged after leaving the Elysee, and he had one last bittersweet act: the presidency of the Convention which in 2002 and 2003 drew up a Constitution for the EU. Former Spanish Minister Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, who as an MEP worked hand in hand with Giscard in the presidium of the Convention, remembers a man who took himself and the work he had entrusted to him very seriously. The subjects he studied thoroughly; rituals were important. At meetings, he was always the last to enter, as befitted his rank. “He has been criticized for haughtiness, a certain remoteness, a bombast, but he managed to convey this to the conventional. He would tell them: ‘Someday you will have a statue in your town in your name!’ I played with it, and it was fine. He was telling them: ‘They will be decisive,’ Méndez de Vigo says by phone. “The model for him was the Philadelphia convention [donde se aprobó la Constitución de EE UU], where one was Washington, another Madison, another Hamilton, another Adams ”.
The European Constitution was not approved, among other reasons for the rejection of France in a referendum, but much of the work ended up integrated into European treaties. As had happened before, his ambitions were left half. “If you fail, let him at least fail by trying great things,” says a phrase by US President Teddy Roosevelt that opens Giscard’s memoirs, “So that your place is never among the cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat”.