Elections in France 2022: Giscard, the unloved | International

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing spent the rest of his life, almost 40 years, feeling like the victim of an injustice. He was the forerunner of Emmanuel Macron as a “child prodigy” of the Fifth Republic and his presidency (1974-1981), despite the turbulent times of the great oil crisis, was full of achievements. But he did not win re-election. He then turned to European issues and to his region, Auvergne, where he laid the foundations for the current prosperity. New electoral defeats ended his patience. In 2004 he left Auvergne and literally sent his fellow citizens out for a walk.

The base of Giscard, generally known as VGE, was always Chamalières, an elegant town adjoining Clermont-Ferrand (centre of the country) that today has about 17,000 inhabitants. VGE won the mayoralty of Chamalières in 1967 and from its council launched in 1974 the campaign that took him to the Elysée. Today the mayor is Louis Giscard, son of the former president. For some reason, the son has preferred not to talk about his father (who died in 2020) with this newspaper. In any case, VGE is remembered in the city. Though perhaps not in the way he would have preferred.

“Giscard? Au revoir”, laughs a father carrying a child on his shoulders. “Au revoir”, repeats the kid. That phrase haunted the poor VGE since the end of the presidency. Deeply hurt by his defeat against François Mitterrand, VGE addressed a televised message to the French in which he reviewed the successes of his mandate. In closing, he said “Au revoir”. He got up from his chair, turned his back on the camera and walked stiffly towards the exit door. But the door was very far away and the march, with the “Au revoir” floating in the environment, became eternal. The echo of “Au revoir” is still playing on YouTube.

VGE was Minister of Economy at the age of 37, like Emmanuel Macron. He took a little longer than Macron to become president (he did it when he was 48 years old), perhaps because these were other times. As for technocratic might, his was top level. He graduated from the National School of Administration, like Macron, and won the opposition to the Finance Inspectorate, like Macron. But he also graduated as an engineer from the highly elite Polytechnic School.

In the seven years of his mandate (now there are five) he did a lot: he decriminalized abortion, thanks to the push of his Minister of Health, Simone Veil; facilitated divorce; he promoted the first meeting of the Group of Seven to face inflation and unemployment in Western countries; developed high-speed rail. Only the opposition of his Gaullist allies prevented him from abolishing the death penalty. And he lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. He was the great modernizer of France.

His re-election in 1981 seemed assured. Installed in his position as republican king, convinced of his talent and popularity, dressed in an aristocratic demeanor, the man who always lived in castles neglected the minutiae of the electoral campaign. He did not even bother to go to Chamalières for the presentation speech: he did it with studied coldness from the Elysée office.

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He did not count on the fact that the diamonds that the Central African dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa had given him would weigh on public opinion. He did not count on the fact that the young people he had allowed to vote would massively support his socialist rival. Nor did he count on the betrayal of Jacques Chirac, his great rival on the French right.

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, on June 2, 2003 in Brussels, where he held the presidency of the European Convention.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, on June 2, 2003 in Brussels, where he held the presidency of the European Convention. Gilles BASSIGNAC (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Like those of next Sunday, those of 1981 were a three-way election. Chirac, a Gaullist, had been eliminated in the first round, but, like now the progressive-populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he had millions of enthusiasts. Chirac secretly met with François Mitterrand’s team and agreed to boycott the VGE campaign in every possible way. The boycott worked. The outgoing president, a great favorite, was defeated by an ambiguous socialist with, until then, a reputation for being a loser.

“He did a lot of things for Chamalières and for the whole of Auvergne. We have all these highways thanks to him, and the Vulcania park, which attracts millions of tourists. I don’t know why, one day he left and never came back. It seems that he was displeased with us.” Renat, owner of a select food store, believes that there was “a misunderstanding.” “We respected Giscard, but here, due to the industrial tradition [encabezada por la fábrica de neumáticos Michelin], we are rather on the left”, he explains. In Chamalières, Macron swept the first lap, followed by Mélenchon. In Clermont-Ferrand, the capital [del departamento de Puy-de Dôme]Mélenchon won, with Macron in second place.

(That doesn’t stop the center-right Louis Giscard from being mayor of Chamalières, and the center-right from winning the regional elections: these are very different dynamics from the presidential election.)

After being expelled from the Elysee and spending time in a Greek Orthodox monastery, Giscard became strong as an Auvergne deputy in the National Assembly. For years he waited in vain for the opportunity to return to the Elysee. When he realized that his time had passed, he tried to win the mayoralty of Clermont-Ferrand and failed. In return, he took over the presidency of the Auvergne Regional Council for 18 years, between 1986 and 2004.

In 2004 he stopped being re-elected. And he got fed up with the Auvergnats. “They are ungrateful. I am surprised that they are not aware of everything I have done to improve their living and working conditions, ”he declared to the regional newspaper The Mountain. VGE sold his Château de Chanonat in the region, auctioned off the furniture and moved to the Aveyron department. “The people there are like the Auvergnats, but unlike the Auvergnats, they smile.”

To get an idea, it was as if Manuel Fraga had lost a Galician election and had moved to Asturias, “where they are like Galicians, but they smile.” There was bitterness on both sides. The former president barely returned to his family’s region.

He published some curious stories. An erotic one, about an older man (similar to him) and a hitchhiker. In another he narrated the love story between a president (very similar to him) and a princess very similar to Diana of Wales. According to his biographer, Georges Valance, VGE was madly in love with the British princess. In his last years, the haughty former president seemed to turn into an eccentric and good-humoured old man.

When Mitterrand died, his old rival, he praised him back and forth: “He was the last president of stature.” Which meant that he himself was the penultimate.

Something always linked him to Mitterrand. VGE’s best friend in her childhood in Auvergne was called Anne Pingeot. She was a girl from a good family, distantly related to the Michelins. Years later, Anne Pingeot became Mitterrand’s life mistress. The word “lover” is actually misleading: she was the woman with whom Mitterrand lived and whom he loved until the last day of his life.

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