Home Europe What Macron could learn from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing

What Macron could learn from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing

by editor

John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

CALVADOS, France — The death of Jacques Chirac was the occasion for a great outpouring of emotion in France last year. Reaction to the death late Wednesday of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is likely to be cooler — respectful but contained.

And yet Giscard d’Estaing (president from 1974 to 1981) arguably did more than Chirac — and François Mitterrand, who preceded Chirac — to bring France into the late 20th century and prepare it for the 21st.

Mitterrand was loved, admired and feared. Chirac was widely loved (secretly in some cases) but not much admired. Giscard d’Estaing was widely admired (at first) but was never loved.

In that, as in many things, the president of the Fifth Republic whom Giscard d’Estaing’s story most resembles is that of the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron.

Both were elected young — Giscard d’Estaing at 48, Macron at 39 — in a country whose politics more often favors an older man who has been marinated in struggle and past failure.

Both emerged from an economically and socially liberal “center” to confound the traditional “families” of conservative right and conservative left.

Both tied their fortunes to a vision of France as a medium-sized, agile and forward-looking country whose global rank would be maintained by a stronger and more integrated Europe.

Both promised to prepare France for a new age. Both were beset by external crises — the 1970s “oil shocks” for Giscard d’Estaing; the COVID-19 pandemic and looming recession for Macron. (Macron was born during Giscard d’Estaing’s seven-year reign; Giscard d’Estaing died, aged 94, after contracting the coronavirus.)

Giscard d’Estaing’s achievements as a reformer were greater than Macron’s have been (so far). In the first two years of his presidency, abortion was legalized; divorce by mutual consent was introduced; the age of majority was reduced to 18; the state stranglehold on TV and radio was loosened; constitutional safeguards were enlarged.

It was Giscard d’Estaing, not the French left, who first translated into political and social reform the frustration and anger of the May 1968 student and worker revolt — at heart a rebellion against the stiflingly conservative (but prosperous) “granddad’s” France of the 1950s and 1960s.

Giscard d’Estaing’s promises to modernize the French economy and reform and reduce the state were not so successful — overwhelmed by the oil shock crises. France still talks wistfully of the “trente glorieuses,” the 30 years of rising prosperity after World War II.

That period ended on Giscard d’Estaing’s watch through no particular fault of his own. His plans to streamline the unwieldy French state came to nothing much — a missed opportunity that the country is still paying to this day.

Giscard d’Estaing did, however, preside over technological advances which benefited France in later decades, including the TGV high-speed train revolution, which began just after he was defeated in 1981. He ended the Gaullist era of “Euroskepticism lite” and began a policy of more wholehearted French commitment to Europe and close partnership with Germany, which continues (with some bumps) to this day. He was one of the fathers of the European Monetary System that grew into the euro.

The final years of Giscard d’Estaing’s term were rather odd. The youthful would-be modernizer became an aloof, patrician president-monarch, who became foolishly embroiled in scandals, such as when he accepted two diamonds as gifts from the Central African Republic’s president, Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

The diamond controversy in November 1979 played a part, but not perhaps an overwhelming role, in his defeat two years later. Giscard d’Estaing and his reformist, economically liberal prime minister, Raymond Barre, won the parliamentary elections of 1979. It is an extraordinary fact that no French government (as opposed to a sitting president) has been endorsed by the electorate in any election since that date — 41 years and counting.

There are many lessons for Macron in Giscard d’Estaing’s story.

The most obvious is that Giscard d’Estaing, having leapfrogged over the traditional parties to power, failed to create a strong and popular centrist party or movement to keep him there. In 1981, he was defeated by Mitterrand’s then-ascendant Socialist Party with the treacherous help of Jacques Chirac’s center-right neo-Gaullists.

Macron’s situation, looking forward to the next presidential election in 2022, is both similar and very different. Macron’s La République en Marche has failed so far to become a permanent part of the French electoral landscape.

But the old two-family French political duopoly is also in ruins. There is no obvious mainstream rival to Macron — no Mitterrand or Chirac of the 2020s.

In 1981, the far right in France polled in single digits. In 2022, Marine Le Pen is likely to get the 22 percent or so she needs to reach the second round where she should, in theory, be beaten once again by Macron.

Like Giscard d’Estaing before him, Macron has been accused of being arrogant and patrician. But that, unlike Giscard d’Estaing, was more common at the beginning of his five-year term.

Macron is relatively strong in the opinion polls — an average of 41 percent approval in eight polls in the last month, higher than any late-term president for two decades. That reflects in part his discovery of a new more down-to-earth, less arrogant-sounding voice (despite several missteps) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, coronavirus vaccine or no coronavirus vaccine, France faces a deep recession and heavy job losses long into 2021. A similar darkening of the economic clouds destroyed Giscard d’Estaing’s chances between his government’s parliamentary victory in 1979 and his defeat in the presidential election in 1981.

The remaining 39 years of Giscard d’Estaing’s life were embittered by a sense of injustice and what might-have-been. Macron will be only 44 at the time of the next French presidential election. Giscard d’Estaing was 55 when he lost to Mitterrand in May 1981.

Other than in sports, that is very young to become yesterday’s man.

Source link

Related Posts