Clever, vindictive, priapic, vain
by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Forget MPs in Westminster bars gauchely patting the knee of women lobby correspondents. When the German TV reporter Ann-Kathrin Stracke, 37, came to interview Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, then 92, at his house in Paris for the German state broadcaster, ARD-WDR, in December 2018, she was taken aback – literally – as his hand crept from her waist to her rump during
the end-of-interview picture, and stayed there. She moved away, he stuck to her, caressing main and all.
He then suggested Stracke should come and look at his photo albums of European politicians to find material for her next segment. And yet again the statesman’s hand found his target. Ms Stracke’s cameraman finally had to overturn a lamp to create a diversion, moving a chair between interviewer and interviewee shortly before the team made their escape. “Sweet dreams,” Giscard susurrated while kissing Ms Stracke goodbye – twice. “You really charmed him,” the superannuated Lothario’s secretary told Stracke on the doorstep with a large smile.
Stracke filed a complaint last year, after her employers failed to get anything more than a curt acknowledgement of a thirteen-page letter they sent requesting a formal apology. The Paris prosecutor’s office launched an investigation, which came to a halt a short while later, when Giscard died of Covid in December 2020. It didn’t make much noise among the fulsome praises lavished on the safely-dead one-term president. “The old dog!”, about sums it up.
Which also, in a way, symbolises Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s real tragedy. Like his fellow Europhile Emmanuel Macron, he was a boy wonder – what the French know as une bête à concours and the British would term a swot. Before becoming the Fifth Republic’s youngest president at 48 in 1974 (a record only beaten by Macron, then 39, four years ago), he was de Gaulle’s youngest finance minister, short on campaigning savvy, long on technocratic cred, after the kind of higher education (ENA and École Polytechnique) that locked him into France’s real aristocracy and networks. After the de Gaulle years, Giscard, coming from a small conservative party rather than the machine-held RPR, the ponderous Gaullist behemoth, seemed a breath of fresh air.
Among the many, mostly true tales circulating about Giscard during his presidency was that he had started psychoanalysis while at the Élysée. This – in those pre-Prince Harry days – prompted jokes; but it was in fact one of his most sensible ideas
Like most politicians, Giscard confused the short honeymoon which followed his victory with the natural state of affairs; a mistake François Mitterrand, the man who would deprive him of re-election in 1981, never made. When, two hours before the outcome of that election was publicly announced, told by his pollsters he’d won, Mitterand asked: “Are you quite sure?”; and then “Et maintenant, les ennuis commencent” (“And now, our troubles begin”).
Giscard was known as “a superb intellectual mechanism” – a compliment in France – so his attempts at slumming it were welcomed at first. The scion of a grand-bourgeois family, he played the accordion rather than the piano! He posed for his official picture in a lounge suit, rather than the white tie and Grand Maître de la Légion d’Honneur red sash! His children sat informally next to him on his campaign posters, à l’Américaine! It was all too charming for words.
It did not last. Part of it was simple bad luck – Giscard came to power exactly at the end of Les Trente Glorieuses, the three postwar decades that saw France rebuild itself with 5% annual growth, with Marshall Plan subsidies, a Five-Year Plan, and a slew of nationalisations: coal, steel, electricity, gas, transport, the largest banks and insurance companies. Anyone looking for a lesson on successful reconstruction could do worse than study that rare moment in the 1950s and 1960s when France managed the charmed balance of private enterprise and public stewardship of the economy. French conservatives are known to joke about the perils of French planning, “because, unlike in the Soviet Union, it worked.”
Faced with energy costs multiplied by four, a sudden recession, and a spike of mass unemployment that would never resolve itself, Giscard drew up a battle plan that still sustains, to a point, France’s topheavy economy. He committed France to energy self-sufficiency with a vast nuclear programme that today produces two thirds of the country’s electricity. He gave the go-ahead to TGV high-speed trains and to Airbus. He modernised an antiquated telephone system so fast that in four years the French went from long waiting lists to get a telephone installed to being given the Minitel, the forerunner of the Internet.
And yet, as the recession hit, he proved unable to keep the country’s spirit together. Like Emmanuel Macron, his inflated vision of himself, nourished by those early exam successes in France’s most elite academies, turned Marie-Antoinette-ish. He invited bewildered dustmen for breakfast at the Élysée, serving coffee and croissants at dawn in Sèvres porcelain, chatting with them in his unique, improbable accent – a strange combination of cut-glass and Auvergnat – in front of a bevy of press photographers. He visited “simple citizens” for dinner once a month for a while – the local Préfets hastily organising the proper china, glassware and cutlery for the night.
He repeatedly tried to be admitted to the Société des Cincinnati, the association of French noblemen who’d fought against the British during the American War of Independence, arguing a spurious descent from Admiral d’Estaing – the name having been bought in 1922 by his bourgeois father, Edmond Giscard. Instead, he was repeatedly blackballed. Furious, he decided that aristocratic titles would no longer be used at Élysée dinners, so that for instance the Duc de Cossé-Brissac was henceforth announced as Monsieur Cossé. In short, this intelligent, vain, vindictive man was his own worst enemy.
Among the many, mostly true tales circulating about Giscard during his presidency was that he had started psychoanalysis while at the Élysée. This – in those pre-Prince Harry days – prompted jokes; but it was in fact one of his most sensible ideas. From family accounts, the attempt did not last long: a couple of months before he decided to ditch his shrink. The rest of his presidency can be read as a grandiose acting-out of his conflicting impulses.
His tin ear got ever worse as he perceived he was getting something wrong without quite understanding how and why. He haughtily refused to answer accusations of a gift of small industrial diamonds by “Emperor” Bokassa of Centre-Afrique when simple candour might have helped him keep his job. When he lost, he staged a cringe-inducing short television address from the Élysée Palace the day of his successor’s inauguration. It ended with the words “au revoir” as he stood and left an empty chair, pointedly exiting the studio, which one assumes symbolised France, while the camera was still running. His plan was then to walk away, alone down the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré – like Gary Cooper walking into the sunset in a western. However, massed Mitterrand supporters spotted him while waiting for their next President to arrive and booed him loudly.
Like Edward Heath, another of his friends, Giscard never understood or accepted his defeat. While president, his pro-EU stance was chiefly motivated by the desire to harness Germany’s economic clout to France’s political pre-eminence; but after he lost, he put his hopes in a personal Brussels renaissance, possibly as President of Europe. That, of course, never happened. His 2005 European Constitution was rejected by the French electorate (and the Dutch). His only consolation prize was getting himself elected to the Académie Française on the strength of a couple of thin essays and a few turgid novels, including his unintentionally hilarious 2009 roman à clef, La Princesse et le Président, in which his alter ego has a torrid affair, painfully explicit, with a “Patricia, Princess of Cardiff”, meant to be the Princess f Wales. It is hard to decide which – Giscard’s overwritten sex scenes, or his late years’ sex pest career – is the more embarrassing. Both remain a cautionary tale for any would-be political successor.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French journalist, editor, author, and a columnist for The Telegraph