Giscard d’Estaing, Valéry (France)
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was finance minister under presidents de Gaulle and Pompidou before becoming the third president of the Fifth Republic from 1974–81. He founded the right-wing political group, Républicains Indépendants (RI), in 1966. He implemented various progressive social policies, but his presidency was ineffectual against the rising tide of unemployment and gathering strength of left-wing parties.
The son of a leading economist, Giscard d’Estaing was born on 2 Feb. 1926 in Koblenz, Germany. He studied at the Ecole Polytechnique, breaking his degree to serve in the French army between 1944–45. After studying at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris, Giscard d’Estaing entered the civil service in 1952 to work in the finance ministry. He was elected deputy of the Puy-de-Dôme department in 1956. A member of the conservative Centre National des Indépendants et Paysans (CNIP), he was one of the group that supported de Gaulle’s move for an independent Algeria. Between 1959–62 he was secretary of state for finance. He was appointed finance minister by de Gaulle in 1962.
The promotion was not a success. In trying to move France away from American influence, he incurred mounting criticism from the business sector. He was dismissed in 1967 when he formed his own party, the RI. He regained his position as finance minister under Pompidou, when he devalued the franc as the foundation of a period of economic stability. When Pompidou died in 1974, Giscard d’Estaing fought for the presidency as the RI candidate. His rival, the Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas, made little impact and the voters were not yet ready for a shift to the left as promised by François Mitterrand. Giscard d’Estaing became president in May 1974.
Giscard d’Estaing enacted various social reforms. Abortion was legalised, contraception was made easier to obtain and the vote was lowered to 18. Censorship in broadcasting and films was relaxed. Giscard d’Estaing was outward looking in his approach to international issues. In 1976 he began the G7 meetings of the seven leading industrial nations. He was more successful than Pompidou in his relations with Germany, working closely with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on EC issues. Together they set up the European Monetary System in 1979. But Giscard d’Estaing’s administration marked the end of France’s trente glorieuses––a 30-year period of economic stability after World War II. Hardline economic measures proved unpopular.
Meanwhile, mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac set about reviving the Gaullist party ‘Rassemblement du Peuple Français’. In 1976 he formed the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR). In response, Giscard d’Estaing formed a centre-right coalition on 1 Feb. 1978, Union pour la Democratie Française (UDF). Battling against unfavourable economic trends, Giscard d’Estaing faced growing opposition from both the socialists led by Mitterrand and the RPR led by Chirac. In the 1981 presidential election, Giscard d’Estaing was defeated by François Mitterrand.
Giscard d’Estaing was president of the UDF until 1996. He was a member of the European Parliament from 1989–93. In 2002 he was appointed by EC president Romano Prodi to head a special convention on the future of the EU. Draft proposals were published in May 2003, which strongly influenced the content of the European Constitution signed and approved by the European heads of state at Rome in 2004. Despite the rejection of the constitution by French and Dutch voters d’Estaing continued to lobby for greater European integration.