Giscard-d’Estaing, who died yesterday, marked a transition in the history of the Fifth Republic. Or, rather, he should have marked a transition, but the “modernization” he championed proved abortive, and the “republican monarchy” he sought to overthrow proved stronger than he imagined. In a sense, he was betrayed by his aristocratic instinct, which outwitted his énarque‘s intellect. He retreated from his initial campaign to bring the presidency down to earth into a frosty hauteur that struck many as a failed simulacrum of Gaullian grandeur, and in the end he was replaced by Mitterrand, who displayed a more developed theatrical flair for the monarchical role.
Giscard began as a technocrat–the best economist of his generation, even if he later bestowed that title on one of his prime ministers, Raymond Barre–but moved quickly onto the faster but slipperier track of politics. In this he blazed a trail that would later be followed by many. His rise was meteoric in speed but not in trajectory, for it was deflected at several points from its ballistic course by more massive celestial bodies: de Gaulle, who had relied on him to handle the pecuniary details of domestic politics he considered infra dig, turned on him when Giscard voted against the referendum that would drive the General from office, and he became a thorn in Pompidou’s side before becoming an obstacle to Chirac’s pursuit of power. But before Chirac became Giscard’s executioner, he served cunningly as his anointer, blocking the candidacy of Chaban-Delmas and promoting that of Giscard as a gambit in his own chess game to win the presidency: by sacrificing his queen to best Chaban, Chirac put himself in a position to take out Giscard with a deft knight’s reverse.
Giscard never really recovered from his loss to Mitterrand after just one term in office. That term was not without accomplishment: in his way he did draw the lesson of May 1968, recognizing the need for societal reforms. His appointment of Simone Veil as health minister was perhaps his most inspired move, and it led to the legalization of abortion in 1975.
Chirac’s treachery was not the only reason for Giscard’s loss to Mitterrand in 1981. The still youthful president was done in more by the end of the Trente Glorieuses and the petrol crisis, which plunged all the advanced industrial economies into a crisis that may seem mild compared to what we have seen since but appeared monumental at the time. VGE’s staunch commitment to what was not yet called the European Union was not enough to save him then (and may not be enough to save Macron, who, though he may prefer to think of himself as a latter-day de Gaulle is in many ways an emulator of Giscard), but it did at least provide him with an honorable retirement, in which he led the ill-fated effort to provide the EU with a constitution.
In that effort he traveled to the United States to study its constitutional history. I met him during that trip and found him more affable than his reputation, which I had encountered at first hand while living in France during the third and fourth years of his septennat. His stiff aloofness with l’homme moyen sensuel clashed with his rumored liaisons with various femmes fatales. An automobile accident in the wee hours of the morning involving the presidential Jaguar, whose passenger seat was occupied by a woman not named Anne-Aymone, vied in the headlines with the other great scandals of the Giscard years, the so-called Affair of the Diamonds and that of the Sniffer Airplanes.
Giscard survived his presidency by nearly half a century, during which he played a much smaller public role than might have been expected of a man of his talents. But those years were dominated by his mortal enemies Mitterrand and Chirac, so he had to amuse himself as best he could, writing a novel in which a character who resembled its author has an affair with Princess Diana, and later allegedly becoming handsy with a German reporter, who denounced the former president in the tsunami of #MeToo accusations to hit the French political class. It was a sad end for a man who might have been a brilliant technocrat but will instead be remembered as a mediocre president.
Photo Credit: Kleinschmidt / MSC, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0 DE.