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The man who sped up France and Europe

Valery Giscard d'Estaing in his car after voting in the second round of the 1974 presidential election, which he won - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Denis MacShane on the late Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a man who helped modernise France and Europe, and relished an argument and a rivalry.

“Your friend, Tony Blair, who does he think he is. He’s now calling for Albania to be let into Europe?”

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing stretched out his long legs in the French embassy in Brussels as he gave me his little lecture on the errors of the former British prime minister.

I replied politely. “Monsieur le president (in France, the title remains even when the office does not), the Albanians are a small nation just to the north of Greece, which was let into Europe decades ago as a small nation, with pre-modern politics, hopelessly corrupt, recently under military dictatorship. Remind me who was the president of France who urged the swift entry of an unreformed, unprepared Greece into the European Community?”

He snorted and changed the subject but the point about Giscard d’Estaing was he loved a good argument. At the time of Greece’s entry, he had swept away criticism of allowing the country in without it even beginning the first required reforms with the line “What is Europe without Plato?”

Giscard d’Estaing was born in the same year as the Queen. He was in the Resistance as a teenager in the war, and joined the Free French Army that liberated France and entered Germany, before going off to pass the rigorous mandarin-type schooling of the French higher education establishments to train the nation’s elite.

His seven year long presidency from 1974 – when he was elected, at the age of 48 – to 1981, when the socialist François Mitterrand took over, saw the transformation of France from a traditionalist catholic conservative country, where its president, Charles de Gaulle, had dictated each day what the television news headlines should be each evening, into a modern, exciting, dynamic, young nation which re-entered history.

Giscard d’Estaing was de Gaulle’s finance minister, a younger version of Rishi Sunak, lecturing the French in his pullover and holding up charts in TV broadcasts to explain the economic changes the country needed.

His presidency oversaw major reforms including getting abortion legalised and contraception widespread, against the opposition of the church and the right. He handed over the task to Simone Veil, who had survived Auschwitz and still bore the Nazi tattoo on her arm. As minister of health she carried out other pro-women reforms.

Unlike Labour Britain of the 1970s, when a government of the out-of-touch 1945 generation could not harness the new energies of the 1968 generation, Giscard d’Estaing opened up France. TGV railways connected the regions of the country, which is twice the size of Britain. The Airbus took off. Giscard d’Estaing, to put it politely, enjoyed women and promoted several to be ministers. He reduced the voting age to 18.

While British journalism was falling under the sway of Rupert Murdoch and his editors, who prepared the way for the decade of Thatcherist rightism, the 1968 generation of journalists and publishers in France were producing new newspapers and establishing new radio stations.

In political terms Giscard d’Estaing never had a majority in the National Assembly. He faced venomous cynical opposition from his rival Jacques Chirac, who shamelessly pandered to the anti-European passions of the French right as well as the communist left.

Chirac got his revenge by running against Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 to split the centre-right vote and thus let in the socialist Mitterrand. Giscard d’Estaing believed there was a secret pact between the pair – two deeply cynical men – to bury their ideological differences in order to defeat him at the 1981 election. He visited Mitterrand on his death bed in 1995 to ask him to confirm his suspicion but Mitterrand, as ever, remained elegantly ambiguous and refused to satisfy his predecessor’s curiosity.

Giscard d’Estaing got a delayed revenge when he revived calls to reduce the presidency term from seven to five, during Chirac’s first term in office. The change was introduced, though Chirac, who died last year, later won a second, shorter, term, thus outlasting his rival in the Élysée Palace.

The biggest reform of Giscard d’Estaing’s presidency was to make France a builder of Europe. He set up the G7 (though there were only five back then) with Jimmy Carter, and France strongly supported the Polish trade union movement, Solidarity, in 1980, which announced the end of Soviet communism.

But it was his partnership with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a man of the same generation, that laid the foundation of the modern European Union. They were both modernising finance ministers who spoke fluent English, their working language. They created the first European monetary system, the forerunner of the euro and brought in direct elections for the European parliament in 1979, providing Europe with an embryonic democratic base.

Giscard d’Estaing’s defeat by Mitterrand, who was ten years older, left the younger man with an after-life at age 55 when he wandered around France, Europe and the world, dispensing advice but without anything serious to do.

He tried a last stab at European politics when he presided over the EU’s constitutional treaty process after 2000. He worked with the stellar British diplomat, John Kerr, who did the drafting, including inserting the famous Article 50 which later allowed the UK to withdraw.

But Chirac had another blow for his rival, when he held a referendum which defeated the constitutional treaty in 2005. In truth, most of Giscard d’Estaing’s provisions were incorporated in the 2008 Lisbon treaty. That document brought back old language from the earlier one, including the reference to “an ever-closer union of the peoples of Europe” which as Europe minister, I had got excised from the final text of the constitution.

When I was in that job, my path would regularly cross with Giscard d’Estaing, as he went from seminar to seminar trying to sell his constitution. At one that I was chairing, I had to explain the purpose of the clock in front of each speaker which showed how much time each platform participant had left. Giscard was just warming up when he spotted it, stopped and said “C’est quoi ce machin?” – “What’s that thing?”

Sadly, I had to tell him “It’s a clock, Monsieur le président” and it tells you time’s up.”  He snorted in a very Giscard way and finished his point, fast looking very grumpy that he could not speak for as long as he was used to. On this occasion, it seemed, he was not interested in an argument.

He entered and left office a young man, but his seven years as president saw many reforms in France and one of the country’s fastest phases of modernisation, as well as the laying of foundations for today’s European Union. Pas mal.

Denis MacShane is a former minister of Europe. He wrote the first biography of François Mitterrand in English in 1982

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