Valery Giscard d’Estaing
Valery Giscard d’Estaing

PARIS: Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing died on Wednesday after suffering from Covid-19. He was 94.

In their tributes French and European leaders hailed him as an ambitious reformer and great statesman.

Under his single seven-year term from 1974-1981, France made great strides in nuclear power, high-speed train travel and legalised abortion.

He placed Paris at the heart of Europe in a post-war partnership with Germany and paved the way for the creation of the G7 group of world powers.

In contrast to his predecessors Georges Pompidou and Charles de Gaulle, he was an accessible and media-savvy politician who enjoyed meeting voters. But he never shook off a sometimes haughty demeanour linked to his aristocratic background.

His ambition to go down as one of France’s greatest leaders was derailed in 1981 when he lost his bid for a second term to Socialist rival Francois Mitterrand.

“His seven-year mandate transformed France,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement. “The direction he set for France still guides our way.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel mourned the loss of a “great European” while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Giscard a “hugely important figure in modernising France”.

Giscard launched a radical reform drive that included legalising abortion, making it easier for couples to divorce and lowering the voting age to 18.

In Europe, he helped the push towards a monetary union in cooperation with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, launching a European exchange rate system that was a precursor to the euro. Giscard was born in the German city of Koblenz in 1926 while it was under French occupation in the aftermath of World War I.

It was at his initiative that leaders of the world’s richest countries first met in 1975, an event that evolved into the annual summits of the Group of Seven (G7).

Some commentators have compared Macron to the centre-right Giscard who became modern France’s youngest head of state at 48, a record since broken by Macron, who was 39 when he took office in 2017.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said Giscard’s social reforms remained “deeply relevant” for young people and women.

‘Not always understood’

Aged just 18, he joined the French resistance and took part in the World War II liberation of Paris from its Nazi occupiers in 1944. He then served for eight months in Germany and Austria in the run-up to the capitulation of the Third Reich.

He launched his political career in 1959, becoming finance minister in 1969.

Tall and slender with an elegant manner, “VGE”, as he was popularly known, preferred a more relaxed presidential style than his predecessors, and was sometimes seen playing football, or the accordion.

Giscard “dominated almost naturally with his presence, his distinction, his language, his liveliness and intuitions”, said fellow centrist Francois Bayrou, a former minister and presidential candidate.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2020

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