Valéry Giscard d’Estaing: A trailblazer for Europe

As one of the architects of the first European monetary system and direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing helped lay the foundation of the modern European Union, writes Denis MacShane.
Valery Giscard d'Estaing | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe

03 Dec 2020

“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, the Albanians are a small nation just to the north of Greece which was let into Europe forty years ago as a small backward nation, with pre-modern politics, hopelessly corrupt, recently under military dictatorship. Remind me who was the President of France who urged the swift entry to 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 he swept away criticism of allowing Greece to enter Europe without even beginning the first reforms needed with the line “What is Europe without Plato?”

Giscard was born 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 schools to train the nation’s elite.

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

Giscard 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.

“It was his intimate partnership with Helmut Schmidt, a man of the same generation, as Chancellor of West Germany, that laid the foundation of the modern European Union”

His presidency oversaw major reforms including getting abortion legalised and making contraception widespread, against the opposition of the church and the right.

He handed over the task to Simone Veil, who 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 in the 1970s, when an out-of-touch 1945 generation Labour government could not read or harness the new energies of the 1968 generation, Giscard opened up France. TGV railways connected the regions of France, which is twice the size of Britain. The Airbus took off.

Giscard, 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 loyal right-wing 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 extending French publishing or new radio stations.

In political terms, Giscard 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 in 1981 to split the centre-right vote and thus let in the socialist François Mitterrand.

“Most referendums in EU Member States this century with the word Europe on the ballot paper were lost - a point David Cameron might have noted if he had ever taken the slightest interest in European politics before calling his Brexit plebiscite”

Giscard believed there was a secret pact between Mitterrand and Chirac, 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 got a delayed revenge when he campaigned for and won a reduction in the term of a French president from General de Gaulle’s seven years to five, but Chirac won two five-year terms so died having just beaten his rival of the 1970s.

The biggest reform of Giscard’s presidency was to make France a builder of Europe. Giscard set up the G7 with Jimmy Carter, who is still alive at 96, and France strongly supported the Polish trade union movement, Solidarity, in 1980, which announced the end of Soviet communism.

But it was his intimate partnership with Helmut Schmidt, a man of the same generation, as Chancellor of West Germany, 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.

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

“Giscard believed there was a secret pact between Mitterrand and Chirac, two deeply cynical men, to bury their ideological differences in order to defeat him at the 1981 election”

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 diplomatist, John Kerr, who did the drafting, including inserting the famous Article 50 to allow the UK to withdraw.

But Chirac got his final revenge on his rival by holding a referendum which defeated the constitutional Treaty in 2005.

In truth, most of his provisions were incorporated in the 2008 Lisbon Treaty. That treaty brought back old Treaty language 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.

Most referendums in EU Member States this century with the word Europe on the ballot paper were lost - a point David Cameron might have noted if he had ever taken the slightest interest in European politics before calling his Brexit plebiscite.

Giscard went from seminar to seminar and, chairing one, 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.

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

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