One of the stories often told in my family is that I was kissed as a child by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
“Giscard”, who died last week at the age of 94, would have blessed me with his presidential touch on June 9, 1978, when he visited my Corsican maternal village. Four years after his first term as French president, the 52-year-old was visit the island where an emerging local nationalist movement targeted state properties and villas built by mainlanders on its pristine coastline with explosives. An open-air banquet for 250 people was held under the plane trees. My mother, a counselor, was able to talk to the president, who showed interest in her work. She held me in her arms and the rest was history.
However, I have never been proud of this anecdote. Those of us born under “VGE” didn’t think much of him. In the schoolyard, we laughed at his pompous air and imitated his slow speech by transforming the “s” into “ch” – Bonchoir Madame, Bonchoir Mademoiselle, Bonchoir Monchieur. We were rather the children of his successor, François Mitterrand. One of my earliest political memories is that of a friend chanting “Uncle, Uncle»(Nickname of Mitterrand).
In the decades that followed his defeat to his socialist opponent in 1981, Giscard remained in the background of French political life, little known. He reappeared to draft a European constitution, but it was rejected by his own countrymen in a referendum in 2005. A survey carried out in 2014 showed that while most French people had a positive opinion of the veteran politician, only 8 percent said he had been a good president – compared to 36% for Charles de Gaulle and 27% for Mitterrand. (His longtime center-right rival Jacques Chirac did the same.)
His death was a unusually low-key affair for a president: there was a national day of mourning on Wednesday, but for the first time under the Fifth Republic, no national ceremony. He did not want it and was buried in private.
In retrospect, we have been ungrateful. Giscard’s social reforms, after the protests of May 1968, freed French society from the shackles of Gaullism. No other president would affect our lives like him.
Thanks to him, I was able to vote at 18 and not at 21. We have learned to take free contraception for granted. A law decriminalizing abortion (defended in parliament by its formidable Minister of Health Simone veil) meant that my friend could terminate an unwanted pregnancy without risking her life. Its reform restoring divorce by mutual consent – a provision passed during the Revolution before being abolished – freed many unhappy couples, including my own parents. Rape was criminalized during his tenure.
Another member of the VGE cohort, current President Emmanuel Macron seemed to recognize him last week. He belonged to a generation which “did not always appreciate how much Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had changed France for them”. Mr. Macron said.
The forgotten legacy of VGE has been an edifying tale for all the presidents who have followed, but perhaps especially for the current occupant of the Elysee Palace. Since his dramatic political rise, Mr. Macron has been dubbed the new Giscard for his youth – VGE was elected at 48, Macron at 39 – and because he too presented himself on a centrist platform. Both Ena graduates – the elite school for grooming technocrats – has launched blitz campaigns with small liberal parties, promising to shake up the old world. Mr. Macron also placed the EU at the heart of his mandate.
In recent days, parallels have again been drawn between the two men. There is indeed a feeling of déjà vu: at the end of his mandate, while France was facing growing economic difficulties, Giscard retreated to the Elysee Palace. His technocratic style was starting to get boring. Its centrism has become tinged with center-right conservatism.
The terrorist attacks prompted him to pass a law to strengthen the powers of the police which criticized by the left as restricting civil liberties. Eventually, he disconnected from many voters who then avoided him when he called for re-election. Looks familiar? Mr Macron might take comfort in the belief that history rarely repeats itself, or he might try to learn the lessons of the VGE era.