Monday, June 14

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Who Struggled to Transform France, Dies at 94

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the modern-minded conservative who became president of France in 1974 vowing to transform his tradition-bound, politically polarized country, only to be turned out of office seven years later after failing to accomplish his goals or to shed his imperious image, died on Wednesday at his family home in the Loir-et-Cher area of central France. He was 94.

His foundation said the cause was complications of Covid-19.

The scion of families that traced their lineage to French nobility and a polished product of France’s best schools, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing had been encouraged to believe that it was his destiny to rise to the pinnacle of government. And he did, swiftly.

But by the time he was ousted from the presidential palace in 1981, roundly defeated in his re-election bid by the socialist François Mitterrand, few French were ascribing greatness to him.

But he drew praise for presiding over an expansion of nuclear energy that supplied France with abundant cheap electricity and helped its industries remain competitive. And while he had a mixed, often disappointing record in foreign policy, he was at his best in Western European affairs.

When President de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1959, he invited Mr. Giscard d’Estaing to rejoin the finance ministry. Three years later, de Gaulle elevated him to finance minister. At 34, he was the youngest official ever to fill that post. He immediately impressed Parliament by delivering his first budget speech without notes.

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing embraced Gaullist policies. He sought to limit American influence in Europe by calling for alternatives to the dollar 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 popular reaction to their finance minister’s domestic policies.

While Mr. Giscard d’Estaing did succeed in cutting the annual inflation rate, his austerity policies — cuts in public spending, tax increases, and wage and price controls — fostered a recession and drew cries of outrage from business and labor; in January 1966 he was summarily dismissed as finance minister. It was the first setback in his career, perhaps in his life, and he still sounded crushed when talking about the incident years later.

“I was sacked like a servant,” he told The Observer of London in 1972. Critics pointed out that in fact he had been a civil servant.

Forming a moderate conservative political faction of his own, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing then campaigned against the aging de Gaulle on an issue, 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 Mr. Giscard d’Estaing, he nonetheless formed a political alliance with Pompidou, a de Gaulle protégé, who went on to win election as president in 1969.

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing sought to build on this honeymoon by casting himself as more relaxed and less pompous than his predecessors. For formal occasions and photographs he wore a business suit instead of buttoning his tall, slender frame into the traditional morning coat or military uniform. He occasionally played romantic tunes on an accordion for television crews.

But other attempts to set aside his aristocratic style and project a populist image backfired. When this new president claimed to have donned disguises and strolled anonymously down the Champs-Élysées, cartoonists gleefully depicted him in a beret and dark glasses, with a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, as he sat at a sidewalk cafe. When he asserted that as a teenager he had participated in the French Resistance against Nazi occupation by furtively distributing anti-German pamphlets, he was mocked by left-wing rivals and a skeptical news media.

A sagging image wasn’t the president’s only problem. Huge spurts in global oil prices, first in 1973 and again in 1979, led to sharp increases in fuel costs, which helped provoke economic slowdowns or recession throughout Western Europe.

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing was able to claim a notable success by committing France, more than any other country, to nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants provided almost all the nation’s electricity, thus sharply reducing oil imports. He also saw that government subsidies and investments were channeled toward large private corporations in aircraft manufacturing, high-speed trains, automobile production and other industrial sectors deemed to be important for economic competitiveness.

But in many cases, such state intervention merely hid companies’ flaws and inefficiencies. The economy slowed, putting a strain on public finances. Yet expectations among the French remained high, because the postwar era had left them with free education through the university level, free medical benefits, subsidized housing, generous pensions, and unemployment payments that nearly equaled an employee’s last salary.

Much to the public’s displeasure, the government was forced to pursue an austerity program to close the gap between public spending and revenue. Unemployment, particularly among young people, rose steeply.

In his re-election campaign, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing tried to draw an alarming picture of what life would be like under a left-wing government. “Adieu to the stability of the franc and the freedom of enterprise,” he asserted, “adieu to nuclear independence and France’s rank in the world — we have seen it happen elsewhere; we would see it here as well.”

But the scare tactic failed. Years of economic austerity and rising discontent with the president’s style brought Mr. Mitterrand and his Socialist-Communist coalition to power in 1981.

After stepping down from the presidency, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing remained active in politics, returning several times to the National Assembly from his Auvergne district.

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing came to shed his image of moderation in favor of a more nationalist posture in the national debate over immigration. In an interview in 1991 with the newspaper Le Figaro, he asserted that “the type of problem we will be facing” concerning immigration has moved “toward that of invasion.” He suggested that French citizenship should be conferred as a “blood right” — a nebulous phrase borrowed from neo-fascists and often construed as racist — rather than as a birthright.

Taking an active role in European Union politics, he staunchly opposed attempts by Turkey to become an E.U. member on the grounds that it was a Muslim, non-European nation; he thus became the first European politician of such high stature to voice that position publicly.

(Negotiations on Turkey’s membership remain stalled over E.U. members’ concerns on matters like human rights, immigration and the rule of law.)

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing was blunt about any talk of embracing Turkey. “In my opinion,” he told the leading French daily, Le Monde, in 2002, “it would mean the end of Europe.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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