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Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing Dies, Age 94

Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, pictured in 2017, died Wednesday in Paris at age 94.
AFP via Getty Images
Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, pictured in 2017, died Wednesday in Paris at age 94.

Updated at 8:15 p.m. ET

Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who was instrumental to the country's expansion of nuclear energy and high-speed rail but lost his bid for reelection during economic recession, died Wednesday, according to French media reports quoting the Elysée Palace.

Giscard d'Estaing, 94, reportedly had suffered from breathing trouble on
Nov. 16 and placed in intensive care. Later he contracted COVID-19. He was France's longest living former president.

Giscard d'Estaing was a lifelong politician, serving in the cabinets of French Prime Ministers Jacques Chaban-Delmas and Pierre Messmer and later as minister of finance and economic affairs under President Charles de Gaulle and President Georges Pompidou.

Giscard d'Estaing was elected president at the age of 48 in 1974, narrowly defeating socialist François Mitterand during a time of cultural modernization and economic upheaval. He was the youngest president of the Fifth Republic, a record that would stand until the election of President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 at the age of 39.

He pushed the country toward a reliance on nuclear power as the country's main energy source. He's also credited with approving the creation of the country's high-speed train service, the TGV, in the 1970s, that is still in use today.

Though he was born into a family of the elite, French bourgeoisie, Giscard d'Estaing wanted to reform and modernize French society. He decriminalized abortion in 1975 and created a minister for women's conditions. He also lowered the voting age from of 21 to 18, which was seen in its day as a big step for French youth.

Giscard famously invited garbage collectors to the Élysée presidential palace to converse, in an attempt to understand the needs of "the people."

A committed multilateralist, Giscard d'Estaing with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt convened the first summit of the world's six leading industrial economies in 1975, which he hosted at the Chateau de Rambouillet in France. The Declaration of Rambouillet committed the leaders to an annual meeting, which would became the G7.

Economic trouble following the 1973 global energy crisis spelled disaster for Giscard d'Estaing, however. He lost his bid for a second seven-year term in a hard-fought rematch with Mitterrand, becoming a rare president turned out of office after one term.

Giscard d'Estaing is also remembered for a scandal linking him to an African dictator. It concerned his accepting a gift of diamonds from Central African leader Jean Bokassa when he visited the African strongman in 1979.

The incident was revealed by satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé and became one of its most famous scoops, remembers editor Erik Emptaz.

"It was just a little line in the paper about how Giscard had offered himself some diamonds while on a trip to Africa. But he took it badly and protested," says Emptaz. "So we dug deeper. And we had the proof."

Many say the infamous Bokassa diamond affair cost Giscard d'Estaing the rematch against Mitterrand.

Emptaz says he'll never forget Giscard's words at the time: "I underestimated the force of derision."

After his presidency, Giscard d'Estaing continued to work in politics, focusing more on the international stage and strengthening connections among European countries.

He was elected to the National Assembly, France's parliament, in 1984, and re-elected in 1993 and 1997. Giscard d'Estaing was also elected as a deputy to the European Parliament in 1989, serving until 1993.

In October 1997, Giscard d'Estaing was elected president of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions and reelected in 2001. In December 2001, the European Council appointed him president of the Convention on the Future of Europe, the goal of which was to produce a draft constitution for the European Union, a project that was ultimately unsuccessful.

He was the author of several books, among them his memoirs, and a member of the esteemed Académie Française, which sets the rules and standards for the French language. In 2009 Giscard d'Estaing published a romance novel titled The Princess and the President, which some say alludes to a liaison with Britain's Princess Diana.

As of May, Giscard d'Estaing was still a member of the country's Constitutional Council, a court that reviews the constitutionality of legislation.

In recent years, Giscard d'Estaing had retreated from public view. Earlier this year, his name appeared in papers again. But the portrayal of the tall and brilliant former French president - who was said to consider himself a séducteur or "lady's man" - was not flattering.

In May, German journalist Ann-Kathrin Stracke accused the former president of groping her after a 2018 interview at his office in Paris. Stracke brought her complaint to police in March, saying Giscard d'Estaing repeatedly groped her buttocks.

Jean-Marc Fedida, Giscard d'Estaing's lawyer, told the New York Times in May that the former president had no memory of the incident, which was viewed as "a particularly undignified and offensive media attack."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.