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.

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing (pronounced ZHEES-carr DEHS-tang) had come to office declaring that he would take hold of the overbearing presidency he had inherited from Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou and make it more responsive to the will of the people — soften it.

But the French government remained centralized under his administration, and the power it gave the French president remained far greater than that enjoyed by his Western European and American counterparts — a point of which Mr. Mitterrand was sure to remind voters in the campaign. He plainly alluded to Mr. Giscard d’Estaing’s aristocratic mien in asserting that the president had behaved like “a sovereign monarch with absolute power.”

As president, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing was hindered by an economic slowdown in Western Europe after more than two decades of almost continuous postwar expansion. A demographic shift had resulted in an aging larger segment of the French population being supported by an economically active smaller base — a situation that became even more acute throughout Europe during the global economic crisis set off in 2008.

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.

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing pushed for the establishment of the European Council, where heads of government met regularly. And the Franco-German alliance, a cornerstone of Western European unity after World War II, was at its strongest under him, thanks largely to his close friendship with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany.

Valéry Marie René Georges Giscard d’Estaing was born on Feb. 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 I. His mother, May Bardoux, belonged to a family active in conservative politics; she claimed to be a descendant of Louis XV, the Bourbon king who ruled from 1715 to 1774. Edmond Giscard traced his lineage to a noble family that thrived before the French Revolution.

Valéry attended the prestigious Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris. Still a teenager during World War II, he joined a tank regiment of the Free French Forces as Allied troops advanced into Germany in 1945. He received both the Croix de Guerre and the Bronze Star.

After the war, he graduated near the top of his class in the École Polytechnique and the École Nationale d’Administration, the elite institutions of higher learning that trained generations of technocrats to run the government bureaucracy.

On completing his studies in 1952, 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 the Auvergne region of central France. They had another house in Auteuil, one of Paris’s most fashionable neighborhoods. They had two sons, Henri and Louis Joachim, and two daughters, Valérie-Anne and Jacinte. (Information on survivors was not immediately available.)

Mr. Giscard d’Estaing began his rapid ascent through government in 1953 with a stint in the finance ministry and as an administrative aide to Prime Minister Edgar Faure. He then won election to the National Assembly in 1956, representing Auvergne in 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 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.

The new president rewarded Mr. Giscard d’Estaing by appointing him finance minister a second time. When Pompidou died of cancer in 1974, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing emerged as a conservative coalition’s candidate for president against a powerful Socialist-Communist alliance led by Mr. Mitterrand.

In one of the closest, most exciting elections in French history, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing gained a wafer-thin victory margin of about 425,000 votes out of 25.8 million ballots cast. At 48, he was the youngest head of state since Napoleon. His grace and intelligence led pundits to call him the “Gallic Kennedy.”

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.

He re-emerged in the news this year when Ann-Kathrin Stracke, a reporter for WDR, a German public broadcaster, accused him of repeatedly groping her buttocks after an interview in 2018. His lawyer said that Mr. Giscard d’Estaing had no recollection of the incident. An official police investigation was opened, but there has been no word on its status.

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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