The third president of the French Fifth Republic, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (born 1926) was the architect of France's economic return as one of the leading nations of the world.
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was born in Koblenz, Germany on February 2, 1926, during the French occupation of the Rhineland. Most of his childhood was spent in Clermont-Ferrand, which had been his family's home for generations. Like many upper class young men of his day, Giscard (he is commonly known by the traditional family name) moved to Paris as a teenager to continue his studies at the Lycées Jeanson de Sailly and Louis-le-Grand.
World War II interrupted his studies. At the age of 16 he joined the resistance against the Germans and collaborationist Vichy government and participated in the 1944 liberation of Paris. He then joined the French army and continued in the fight against the Germans in northern France and later in Germany.
After the war Giscard resumed his studies and was admitted to the prestigious engineering school Ecole polytechnique in 1946. After graduating he went on to the new Ecole national de l'administration established to train future bureaucrats to carry out major economic and civil responsibilities with modern management techniques. He received high academic honors. His education also included a year at the Harvard Business School.
A Rapid Rise in the Bureaucracy
In 1952 Giscard was named inspecteur des finances and began a meteoric bureaucratic career. He was one of the leaders of a new generation of civil servants who eschewed traditional norms of both neutrality and maintaining the status quo. Rather, they were committed to modernizing the French economy and thereby avoiding the problems that had afflicted France since the 1870s.
Young Giscard turned to politics earlier than many of his bureaucratic colleagues. In 1956 he was elected to parliament from his home department of the Puy-de-Dome, which he continued to represent into the 1980s. Meanwhile, he was building his career in Paris as well. In 1955 he was named deputy director of Prime Minister Edgar Faure's personal staff.
Like many bureaucrats of his generation, Giscard was ready to participate in General de Gaulle's first government of the Fifth Republic in 1959 because the general's goal of grandeur meshed neatly with his desire for economic growth. Because of his political as well as bureaucratic background, Giscard was able to start near the top. He was named deputy finance minister in that first government and was the youngest member of the cabinet.
For the first 23 years of the Fifth Republic, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing held a variety of critical posts. In 1962 he was named minister of finance and economic affairs. He resigned that post in 1966, but served as chair of the National Assembly Finance Committee for the next two years. President Georges Pompidou reappointed Giscard minister of the economy and finance after his election in June 1969. Giscard held that post until Pompidou's death in 1974. Giscard d'Estaing then ran for president (as a member of the Independent Republican Party) against the Socialist leader François Mitterrand, and won the election held immediately thereafter. He served a full term as president but in seeking re-election in 1981 he was defeated by Mitterrand.
More Successes than Failures
Throughout his career, Giscard d'Estaing was known for three things. First, he was a loyal, if occasionally critical, ally of the Gaullists. In 1962 Giscard and his new political party, the Independent Republicans (Républicains indépendents) supported the referendum on the direct election of the president and then threw their support to the Gaullists in the subsequent legislative elections. That support was critical for the formation of the first stable parliamentary majority in French republican history. The Gaullists and Giscardians were allied thereafter. There were moments of serious disagreement—for example, prompting Giscard's resignation from the cabinet in 1966—but those problems never threatened the life of a Gaullist cabinet.
Second, Giscard was the politician of the center and right most open to progressive socio-economic reform. In his book French Democracy (1977) he advocated a more open, pluralistic system than that provided by the Gaullists. In addition, he strongly supported environmental protection, expansion of the social services, and loosening government control over economic forces and at least hinted at the possibility of a coalition government with the Socialists.
Finally, Giscard was probably best known as an economic reformer, as the leader of a generation of politician-bureaucrats who transformed France from one of the most backward into one of the most dynamic economies in Europe. Though more of a free-market capitalist than his Gaullist colleagues, Giscard was not reluctant to use the state to provide investment funds and other incentives, to encourage firms to merge, and to generally create what he called "national champions"—one or two large firms in each industrial sector that could compete effectively in international markets.
Giscard's career was not a total success. His presidency never produced the results he had hoped for in each of these areas. His alliance with the Gaullists—including his growing rivalry with Jacques Chirac, who served as his first prime minister—limited his ability to embark on political or economic reforms. Most notably, they made it impossible for him to make the kind of opening to the center left envisioned in French Democracy. He began his presidency with a series of important symbolic changes—dining with immigrant workers, stopping plans for an expressway on Paris' left bank, and holding cabinet meetings outside of Paris. Those symbols did not turn into substantive improvement in the lot of immigrants or in the quality of urban life nor into decentralization. President Giscard d'Estaing and his second prime minister, the economist Raymond Barre, did succeed in removing many state controls over the economy, but their liberalization reforms helped push France into a recession by the later 1970s.
Late in his term Giscard and those around him became embroiled in a series of scandals and were accused of high-handed leadership. As a result, Giscard lost the 1981 presidential election to the man he had defeated seven years earlier, François Mitterrand. The Gaullist and Giscardian parties then lost the subsequent legislative elections as well, and for the first time in a quarter of a century, Giscard d'Estaing found himself in opposition.
His career was in limbo after that. In 1984 he was reelected to the National Assembly in a by-election in his old district. Still, a return to the top was unlikely given his defeat in 1981 and the fact that other center and right wing politicians had become more popular.
After losing the election, Giscard remained active in political and economic arenas. In 1990, Giscard played a major role in establishing the Union for France (UPF), a right-wing political organization. In 1996 Giscard participated in The Fortune Global Forum—a world gathering of leading companies and political leaders who discussed the challenges of the global marketplace. In 1997 Giscard served as president of the Auvergne Regional Development Agency—a regional institution focusing on regional development and economic promotion and composed of forty members including local and regional collectivities, financial establishments, large companies, small and medium-sized businesses
Giscard reflected as much as any one individual could the personality of the group that dominated the Fifth Republic's first quarter century. Though he came from the "old France" of the nobility and small town politics, he also personified the "new France" of technically competent bureaucrats who sparked the modernization that turned France into one of the most powerful and dynamic countries in the world.
Further Reading on Valéry Giscard d'Estaing
For an overview of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's career, see J. R. Frears, France in the Giscard Presidency (London, 1981). For his own ideas, see Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, French Democracy (1977).
For biographic resources about Valéry Giscard d'Estaing see: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Edition 5, Columbia University Press, 1993.
For on-line resources about Valéry Giscard d'Estaing see: < http://www.biography.com>,<http://web.w2line.fr/ard-auvergne/gb/default.html >, and<http://web.w2line.fr/ard-auvergne/gb/brochure.html >.