Valéry Giscard d’Estaing
© Rudy Waks

A few days after news flashed around the world in January that François Hollande, France’s president, had been riding a scooter out of the Elysée Palace to secret trysts with an actress, the telephone rang in the FT’s Paris office.

Down the line came the surprising but distinctive voice of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, former president of more than three decades ago.

Vous parlez français, monsieur?” he inquired.

Oui, bien sûr,” I replied, startled, but trying to sound assured.

Clearly unconvinced, the venerable elder statesman continued in his accomplished English. He wanted to take issue with a reference I had made in an article about Hollande’s affair to an oft-repeated tale about himself when he was president, involving an early morning car accident with a milk float while on an alleged romantic escapade of his own.

“It never happened!” he declared. “It was a story invented by a friend of mine as a joke. A joke in good or bad taste, I don’t know.”

There followed a gentle admonishment about what he called, slipping back into French, “journalisme de répétition”. But to my relief, this redoubtable figure, still active and engaged in current affairs at the age of 88, quickly moved on to discuss the rather more mundane issue of Britain’s role in Europe. He cheerily agreed to see me for an interview.

Some weeks later, we meet on a bright spring morning at his elegant apartment on a quiet street in the smart 16th arrondissement, with the sun lighting up the lush green walled garden behind. It is hard to escape the feeling of stepping back in time. Not just because of the classic nature of the house, with its wood panelling, high ceilings, tall windows and 18th-century paintings. Giscard d’Estaing is a living witness to great events and their protagonists stretching back to the mid-20th century.

VGE, as he is known in France, this month marked the 40th anniversary of his election as president in May 1974. He first became a government minister in 1959 and was finance minister under Charles de Gaulle. He treasures a picture of himself visiting President John F Kennedy at the White House.

His own presidency saw him in summit meetings with the ailing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, entertaining the soon-to-be-deposed shah of Iran at Versailles and founding what was then the G5 group of western leaders. Around the table at the first G5 meeting in Rambouillet in November 1975 were Gerald Ford, Helmut Schmidt, Harold Wilson and Takeo Miki of Japan. (Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister, turned it into the G6 by literally gatecrashing the meeting.) When Giscard d’Estaing left office in 1981, defeated by his old socialist adversary François Mitterrand, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (an “ultra conservative” only interested in Europe as a free trade area, he scoffs in his memoirs) were just getting into their stride.

We sit down to talk in the dining room looking out into the garden, the table covered with a baize-like cloth. It is here that Giscard d’Estaing has over the years held private discussions with fellow leaders. An aide says later that Deng Xiaoping, the great Chinese reformer, had once sat in the same spot.

The former president will talk at length about Europe’s present and future. But first, what about the past? France, like the UK, is building up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war in August. Giscard d’Estaing is uncomfortable. “I can’t understand why we are commemorating the first world war,” he says. “What is there to commemorate? It was a war with no purpose that ended in an abominable massacre. I won’t commemorate it. I will reflect, remember, but not commemorate.”

This summer also marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings and the liberation, in August 1944, of Paris. Giscard d’Estaing was in Paris at the time as an 18-year-old, playing a small role in the resistance. But, again, his view is distinctive, if not dissident. Recalling the day the city was freed from the Nazis, he says: “I heard General de Gaulle with my own ears say Paris liberated itself. That wasn’t true. It was liberated by the Americans. It was simply a mise en scène that allowed the French forces to arrive in time to participate in the liberation of Paris. But we didn’t tell the truth about it.”

Giscard d’Estaing, against the advice of his father who did not want him to interrupt his education, joined the French First Army, becoming a corporal in a tank unit fighting the Germans in the winter of 1944-45. He remains critical that only two volunteer French divisions fought through the final months of the war after the liberation. “I was shocked that France didn’t join the war. We should have mobilised the French to fight in the war with our allies,” he says.

Nonetheless, he approves of commemorating the end of the second world war. “We can commemorate this victory because one can say it was a victory of good over evil. But it must be commemorated in a spirit of turning to the future.”

Giscard d’Estaing was just 55 when he lost the presidency, an age when most French politicians are still far from the peak of their careers. He worked for some years to find a satisfying new role in domestic political life but never quite succeeded.

A patrician figure from a family of the haute bourgeoisie, whose favourite pastime is game shooting, he never quite fitted into the earthy milieu of French domestic politics. Queen Elizabeth judged him brilliantly when she gave him a black Labrador as a gift, which he adored.

He has written popular novels, including one in 2009 called The President and the Princess that featured a passionate affair between a French president and a British princess, sparking rampant speculation that he was suggesting a liaison between himself and Princess Diana. He denied it.

Nor does he fit easily into the French policy mainstream of Gaullism and dirigisme that flows through both left and right. “As a young [parliamentary] deputy, Giscard d’Estaing called himself ‘liberal, reformist, European, centrist’. He has not diverted from this profession of faith,” wrote the late Georges Valance in his 2011 biography, VGE.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing with Helmut Schmidt
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing with Helmut Schmidt, 1974 © J. Cuinieres/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

But Europe is arguably where Giscard d’Estaing has most made his mark, inspired, he says, by Robert Schuman, the resistance fighter and postwar statesman whose vision of a “supranational” Europe gave impetus to what became the European Union. It is certainly where his political engagement remains. Together with former social democratic German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, himself still engaged at the even more impressive age of 95, VGE has formed in recent years a kind of Statler and Waldorf double act on the future of Europe. They have a new book coming out shortly.

“I had the good luck to have as a colleague Helmut Schmidt,” he says. “We were elected as the head of our countries within three days of one another. We knew each other very well. We had the same ideas about Europe and so we built a programme and we made progress on a lot of things.”

His verdict on their current crop of successors is abrupt. “There is a terrible lack of leadership. As Helmut Schmidt says, Europe’s problem is the absence of leadership.” Without mentioning Angela Merkel by name, he damns with faint praise: “There is a bit of German leadership. The problem is it is German leadership, not specifically European leadership. We, in our minds, at the time, put European issues above national issues when we met.”

Well, not everybody. “The British didn’t act like that. They always demanded their rights, their money, ‘payback’ – I don’t know what.” The former president gives a throaty chuckle as an aide says the single name “Margaret” from the sidelines.

The mark of the Giscard d’Estaing-Schmidt tandem on what was then the European Economic Community in the 1970s was the European Monetary System, which laid the foundations for the single currency, the European Council and the direct election of the European parliament.

In the early 2000s, Giscard d’Estaing headed the convention that crafted a new EU constitution, which aimed to re-engage voters with a ringing declaration of democratic values and a streamlined governance structure topped by a “president” of Europe. But that was killed off when it was heavily rejected in first a French, then a Dutch referendum in 2005 – a stinging blow to Giscard d’Estaing.

Given the deep systemic crisis that the euro has since suffered, the dysfunction of the endless all-night EU summits and the prospect of a populist, eurosceptic surge in this month’s European elections, does he not have any regrets about his legacy?

Eh bien, non!” he exclaims. He blames bad management for Europe’s current malaise, not the basic architecture of the system. “Europe has performed badly during the crisis and has a level of unemployment, especially among the young, that is far too high, which shows that the system is not performing. It is said people are voting against Europe – that’s not true. They are voting against what Europe is doing wrong.”

His prescription for the EU is to focus on becoming more clearly split between what he calls “two projects”. The first, “big” project encompasses the 28 current members and potential new ones, limited essentially to a free-trade zone. The second, smaller project centres on a core group committed to economic and political integration – the eurozone.

Giscard d’Estaing’s beef is that the “big” project has not been reformed sufficiently – and the eurozone has been mismanaged. “They continued to live like they didn’t have a single currency,” he says. “The result was excessive spending and imprudent debt policies. It wasn’t the euro that was the problem, it was governmental management.” The eurozone needs more Europe not less, he insists, with harmonised economic and fiscal policies. Can people be persuaded to accept this?

“You have to have a model in mind. At the moment there is no model, which explains the indecision,” he says. “But it needs time. You can’t do it in two years, it will take 20 or 30 years. But you have to show the way, to set the objective.”

But what about eurosceptic Britain, with David Cameron demanding renegotiation of membership terms and promising an “in-out” referendum? Giscard d’Estaing wants the UK to stay in the “big project” and thinks it is possible to deliver reforms to do so.

“It’s not very difficult. When I was president of the [constitutional convention], I went to Downing Street almost every month to see Tony Blair. He laid out Britain’s ‘red lines’. We came up with proposals and I went to London to verify that their red lines were not broken. And when the work was over, Great Britain approved the constitutional project. It proved that if there is careful work, which takes account of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, one can reach a solution.”

Which leaves France. Giscard d’Estaing is careful not to comment directly on current politics but answers “obviously, yes” when asked if France has lost influence compared with the days when he was president, Germany was still divided and Paris called most of the political shots in Europe.

He casts back in time to make his point about what needs to be done. “When I was minister of finance, British GDP was bigger than that of France. I said to General de Gaulle, listen. I propose that we overtake British GDP. And we did. You can have a kind of benchmark between countries in which you fix objectives. Currently, between France and Germany, the gap is too big. Not because of what Germany has done but because of what France has not done. And we must reduce the gap.” The message for François Hollande to get his skates on is clear.

The interview is politely drawn to a close. As he rises for some photographs, VGE breaks into English after indulging my French during our discussion, asking me where I live in Paris. Not far away, as it happens, and he approves. Then it is time to leave. An ambassador is pacing impatiently in an anteroom, waiting for an audience.

Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s Paris bureau chief.

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