Closeup/International Affairs

Le grand Giscard

He’s been lucky so far, but the luck can’t hold

Marci McDonald July 10 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

Le grand Giscard

He’s been lucky so far, but the luck can’t hold

Marci McDonald July 10 1978

Le grand Giscard

Closeup/International Affairs

He’s been lucky so far, but the luck can’t hold

Marci McDonald

Helicopter blades slash the gathering twilight over the Alpine village of Le Reposoir, sending up whirlwinds and nervous anxiety. On a mountain ledge, 35 nuns of the 15th-century Carmelite convent scurry into their courtyard, waving tricolor flags frantically heavenward. Below, in a dandelion field, the entire population of 176 braces itself for history to descend with pomp, ceremony and the rattle of jet propellers. Mothers raise terrified infants aloft; dewy schoolgirls rush forward, autograph books outstretched as if to some anticipated pop idol. “A great moment— what a great moment,” Mayor Jean-Pierre Jouenne keeps repeating, although he is hard pressed to explain it. For reasons not entirely clear to anyone, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is coming to dinner—fresh from triumph at the United Nations and saddle of veal at the White House. It is in this obscure mountain hamlet that he has chosen to celebrate his fourth anniversary as president of France’s Fifth Republic.

Pundits hint that Le Reposoir district is finally getting its reward for casting 155 of its 168 votes for him in the presidential elections. The more cynical have been unkind enough to insinuate that, having emerged astonishingly triumphant from last March’s legislative elections, Giscard has already begun campaigning for 1981 when his seven-year'mandate comes up for renewal.

But no matter. Here, where the footnotes to history have so seldom come calling, there are no quibbles. As the presidential chopper lumbers down, the church bell peals over the mountainside in solitary frenzy and young boys dash to roll the red carpet out. Hands are pumped, signatures served up and jokes spun. Whispers flutter through the populace, marvelling at how this towering presence negotiates the gravel path and garrulity with no pretensions. As the heaping plates of beef with wild morels from the forest are passed, he leaps up from the table to borrow an accordion and, in shirtsleeves, pumps out a rendition of Cherry Blossom Time, exhorting the assembly to “sing loudly so as not to hear the false notes.” But as he leans forward to blow out the four fat candles on his Savoyard anniversary cake, even Valéry Giscard d’Estaing himself knows that the induced choralling of an entire nation cannot drown out the discordant notes which have echoed through the first half of his reign.

France stands at an economic and social crossroads, neither firmly rooted as a fully

industrialized democracy nor impervious to the winds of Eurocommunism which swirl around its flanks. As the opinion polls and staggering uncertainty surrounding the March elections made clear, Giscard has become the man of the hour, not because his policies were the first choice but because they were the least unacceptable. Unemployment now inches up over one million in a nation of 53 million and government spokesmen confirm that it will continue to climb. In a series of desperate measures to pump up the economy, the prime minister, Raymond Barre, has just liberated a wide sector of big business from price controls while increasing the average citizen’s woes with price hikes on trains, telephones, stamps, gas and electricity that range from 10 to 20 per cent. Inflation creeps back up toward the 10-per-cent mark. Even the most optimistic of economists do not deny that dark times lie ahead.

“In four years, all the objectives that I set myself have still not been attained,” he tells the people of Le Reposoir in the first public stocktaking he has permitted himself—a mild understatement. The president, who had arrived at the Elysée Palace on foot proclaiming “a new era for France,” had in the last few months found himself bogged down in accusations of ineffectuality and insinuations of scandal, humiliated by the brash politicking of his former prime minister Jacques Chirac and the right-wing Gaullists on one side; on the other, buffeted by the tides of socialism/ communism which swelled throughout the land.

“Four years is a long time,” he says. “If I were president of the United States, my mandate would expire today. This evening then is an anniversary which matters greatly.”

Almost four years into his presidency, the man who had vowed to end the “ideological divorce” that was rending his country in two had discovered not only that the broad-based centre he hoped to govern from was not holding; it simply did not exist. The reformer who had pledged himself to weld France into one nation free from poverty, privilege and discrimination could boast only the most meagre of legislative records—hobbled by a hostile parliament, still master of a country with some of the most pronounced social inequities of any developed nation today. As he approached March’s legislative test, Giscard’s personal popularity had plunged to a nadir. The press portrayed him as a latter-day Hamlet, vacillating and afraid of confrontation. “It was their most indecisive king that the French guillotined,” the right-wing Nation intoned. “Who Can Save Giscard from Shipwreck?” asked the left-wing Nouvel Observateur.

But overnight, on the evening of March 19, after closeting himself in the solitary splendor of the presidential weekend château in the forest of Rambouillet to await the will of his people, he had emerged the clear winner of the most pivotal legislative elections in the country’s two centuries of history.

His Union for French Democracy, the centrist alliance patched together only one month before balloting, had surprised even him by polling over six million votes, the second largest voice in France. All around, the union of the left, so full of hope before the elections, was splintering in bitter recriminations and self-justifications, while the Gaullists were mustering an aggressively stiff upper lip to mask their disappointment at the ballot box. “Giscard: Act II,” hailed the weekly Le Point. The daily Quotidien de Paris called it “The Second Springtime of Giscard.”

“Change Without Risk,” was the Giscardian battle cry of ’74, full of promise and contradictions. It may not be entirely insignificant that it was embraced by a society which—nearly 200 years after the French Revolution sent 17,000 heads rolling-still boasts the most inequitable income distribution of any country in the West. In the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, a study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in August, 1976, claimed that France showed the greatest gap between rich and poor of all Western nations. The wealthiest 10 per cent of the population absorbed 30.5 per cent of the aftertax income; the poorest 10 per cent, a mere 1.4.

Furious, the French government challenged the statistics and embarked on a study of its own. Four months later it had to confirm that in France the average white-collar employee earns 63 per cent more than his blue-collar counterpart (compared to a 57-per-cent disparity in West Germany and in Great Britain). A top French executive’s salary is 5.1 times higher than that of his blue-collar workers—more than twice the gap than in that neighboring land of milk and money, the German Federal Republic. A substantial number of France’s 20 million workers survive on annual incomes of $4,810, while a typical four-cylinder car costs $5,000, gas is at $2.10 a gallon, tomatoes sell for $ 1.75 a pound, lamb chops for $3.50 a pound and an ordinary letter now takes a 30-cent stamp. One out of every six French workers’ homes is officially considered to be overpopulated, 48 per cent still have no indoor toilets, 52 per cent have neither a bath nor shower and 73 per cent lack telephones. However . ..

On the caress of a soft spring night, a Paris business consultant and his wife stroll through streets redolent with new chestnut blossoms to savor Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Opera for $50 a seat, then sup on fresh foie gras and duck breasts bathed in honey for another $50—a lifestyle which is the envy of their North American visitors.

The tourist Instamatics do not venture beyond the quaintness of the suburban Clignancourt flea market. The unseen, sinister streets chart a course of despair among the tenements, infants wailing at window ledges for a breath of stale factory air, the stairways rank with garlic and urine, walls scarred with full testimony to their tenants’ contempt. On the March eve of the second round of balloting, Robert Guerlain, darkly handsome scion of the. perfume fortune, sat in his broadloomed office high above the Champs Elysées and worried that “France is a country with a lot of injustice. For a rich man, it’s fantasticlow income taxes, no capital gains tax. But I know it can’t last. I’d simply rather that things be changed gradually by my own kind than rudely forced upon us.” Blocks away, in the salon of her six-storey hôtel particulier, one of the last of Paris’ great private houses still possessed by a single family, the duchess of Brissac turned to her husband, panic in her eyes: “My God, we have three châteaux and a hôtel particulier in Paris—they’re going to come and take everything away from us.” Now the nightmare of August 4, 1789 Revisited has been laid to rest by the March rebuff of the left, but in the collective sigh of relief it cannot

be forgotten that 45 per cent of the country’s voters knowingly registered their determination for a radical change.

When the Socialists and Communists drafted their extensive nationalization plans, they had done their homework. Ten private banks still largely in the hands of old families control 15 per cent of French industry. Names like Schlumberger, Schneider, Empain and Peugeot still dominate whole manufacturing sectors. It was

not entirely coincidental that the man leading this spring’s crop of deputies into the National Assembly was their doyen. 86-year-old aircraft tycoon Marcel Dassault, believed to be the richest man in France, who, when he wanted to see a Louis de Funès film, once purchased the entire cinema. Government still rests in the hands of a virtual oligarchy, sons of an elite who have been processed through France’s grandes écoles, the Ecole Polytechnique or Ecole National d’Administration, Giscard’s alma maters, where it matters not so much what one has learned as whom one has met. “Every time I have a business problem I phone one of my school friends in the particular ministry,” says a Bordeaux château owner’s son. “It’s regulated the same day.”

The private club continues to tyrannize the social fabric. “This has always been a hierarchical society,” says Simon Charles Timoléon Pierre de Cossé, 12th duc de Brissac, who presides over the most relentlessly exclusive of them, Paris’ Jockey Club, which once vetoed Egypt’s King Farouk as a member. The Rothschilds have had the discretion not to apply. “The Jockey is one of the last places in the world where money counts for absolutely nothing,” he smiles with the satisfaction of a man who can trace his own title to preRevolutionary days and has a certain faith in the eternal order of things. “There are members who don’t have titles, but not many of course.” Currently fighting a rearguard action against the upstarts at the telephone company who omitted all titles from the new directory, he has heard it rumored that the orders sprang directly from the Elysée, where titles have been dropped ever since Giscard’s arrival. “A little bit of

demagogic affectation,” sniffs the duke who is, in fact, related to the president by marriage: his duchess, an heiress to the Schneider steel millions, is the aunt of Anne-Aymone de Brantes, the president’s wife. “We have a saying in France that he who wants something too much and can’t have it, likes to pretend that he doesn’t want it at all.”

Indeed, pockets of the aristocracy delight in relating that the president’s father, a former inspector of finances who later made a small fortune in business, was born simply Edmond Giscard. In 1922, when he had his family tree traced, a distant d'Estaing was unearthed—a tie with the French admiral who sailed off to fight the American Revolution. “Unfortunately Giscard’s family descended not from the admiral, but from an obscure cousin,” points out a nobleman who prefers to remain nameless.

“How can you be expected to govern a country which has 300 kinds of cheese?” Charles de Gaulle was fond of repeating. In fact, Androuet’s definitive Guide du Fromage acknowledges more than 2,000 varieties of Camembert alone. In a nation with such a penchant for hairsplitting that an average of nine parties vied for each seat in the last elections, it seems only fitting that their current president is a man as complex as the people he aspires to unite. Seen by the masses as a sometimes aloof aristocrat,

Giscard is distrusted by the aristocracy as an arriviste who bends rather too far backward in espousing the common touch, a traitor to his class. He is a genuine idealist who dreams of founding a French social democracy, yet surrounds himself with princes and is the founder of a political party which has included some of the most entrenched conservative spokesmen in France. Not unlike another world leader of his generation, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to whom he bears a number of striking similarities, Giscard is a family man with the reputation of a playboy, a champion of reason who is both lauded for his formidable intellect and berated as a hollow theorist, a politician who has demonstrated at once a remarkable naïveté and a brilliance of strategy which—with virtually no party machinery behind him—led him to conquer the nation’s highest office and remake it in his own image.

From boyhood, his pursuit of the presidency had never been in doubt. At 29, after graduating from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and winning a post in the coveted finance ministry, he followed his maternal grandfather and great grandfather into parliament as one of its youngest members. At 32, as the Fourth Republic shuddered to a collapse and Charles de Gaulle emerged to create the Fifth from its ashes, the tall, already balding Wunderkind was summoned as his junior minister of finance, the youngest member of his cabinet. Three years later he was rewarded with the full ministry, although his proficiency and zealous prosecution of tax fraud soon ceased to please. In 1966, when De Gaulle’s presidency was ruffled by an unexpected challenge from his old foe, socialist François Mitterrand, at the polls, his first scapegoat was his brilliant high-profile finance minister who had already been celebrated by the press as having presidential ambitions of his own. In revenge, Giscard, his close friend (now minister of the environment) Michel d’Ornano and Prince Michel Poniatowski (the genial plump aristocrat who had befriended him at school and who was to become his presidential campaign director, minister of the interior and closest confidant, the rumored éminence grise of the Elysée until he was sacrificed to hints of scandal last summer) founded their own Independent Republican party. He stumped the country beating its drum, getting photographed piloting helicopters and setting ski records on the face of Mont Blanc, getting quoted in rebuke of De Gaulle’s Middle East and vive le Québec libre stances.

It was a solitary time, a three-year “crossing of the desert,” as the French phrase it, during which he travelled and met a young Frenchman doing political research at Princeton. “He was sad and lonely,” recalls Michel Pintón, one of the creators and secretary-general of the Union for French Democracy, the man charged

with building the party of centrist Giscardians into a voice so large as to drown out the Gaullists and extreme leftists on either side. “He seemed to be escaping from France. Everybody was against him. But he wanted to bring a new language to French politics which he thought was too emotional and full of rhetoric. I wanted to use some of the American scientific tools I had learned working for Eugene McCarthy.” Together, they plotted Giscard’s campaign against the 1969 referendum which sent De Gaulle into his final exile. His successor, Georges Pompidou, restored Giscard to the finance ministry where he became known for his TV lectures to the nation on its economy, with folksy turtleneck and baby-simple graphs—a prelude to the April, 1974 morning when, six days after Pompidou’s death, he finally announced his own aspirations for the Elysée. Flying on nothing more than personal style and Pinton’s coaching on how to handle himself during France’s first televised political debates, he squeaked in past the favorite, François Mitterrand, by less than one per cent of the vote.

At 48, as the youngest president of the Fifth Republic, the first non-Gaullist to preside over a constitution tailored expressly for le Grand Charles, he walked down the Champs Elysées in a simple business suit brandishing the cry for a new political vision to wipe out the stubborn ageold schism between rich and poor, left and right.

But, his arrival at the palace coincided with an international energy crisis that left France reeling, its balance of payments deficit sent soaring, inflation rocketing to 15 per cent, and reform the last thing on anybody’s mind. In fact, he did succeed in fighting through liberalized divorce and abortion laws and lowered the voting age to 18—no mean feat in a country which is both Catholic and inherently conservative. But his attempts at uniting France’s two solitudes only seemed to further entrench them. His attempt at a capital gains tax was opposed so bitterly by left and right alike that it emerged watered-down to the point of being declared inapplicable. His med-

dling in the municipal elections a year ago resulted in the Gaullists’ victory in Paris, while Socialists and Communists swept the rest of the land.

Word leaked out that when Giscard wasn’t in his bachelor quarters at the Elysée, he wasn’t popping in on the wife and kids in their toney 16th-century arrondissement either, thanks to a predawn collision with a milk truck. His name was linked with actress Marlene Jobert and vivacious photographer Marie-Laure de Decker whose informal shots had helped groom him for the presidency. There were suggestions that the rumors were fanned by Giscard himself. Indeed, a poll by Paris-Match revealed that a resounding 83 per cent of Frenchmen approved of his nighttime sorties. Giscard’s personal popularity hit its lowest point a year ago and as talk of his private depressions oozed into the press, Michel Pintón once more offered his services.

His first counsel was that Giscard must become more the man of action. His second resulted in the alliance of centrist parties, for which he was given the go-ahead only belatedly, but no budget. Based on Pinton’s calculations that a crucial three to four per cent of the socialist vote could be swayed by Giscard’s appeal, he designed a campaign solely around free TV time where political personalities explained why they championed the president. Now, having risen phoenix-like from that bet,

Giscard seems to be fired by a determination to make up for lost time. Swiftly, he has axed men of questionable sympathies and placed his Giscardians in key government command posts, above all where they can influence public opinion and the press—a move which has some French journalists worried.

His prime minister, Raymond Barre, has been left to the dirty work of righting the economy with a series of both brutal and conciliatory measures, while Giscard ranges the wider stage, speaking to the United Nations special disarmament session, sending French troops to the rescue in Zaire, playing both gendarme and paternal helpmate in Africa, and public conciliator back home. His post-election invitations to the Elysée are a blatant and genuine attempt to court the more moderate socialists and trade unionists to join in his centrist dream. Mitterrand, it is almost certain, will never capitulate—his own sights still set on a last grasp for the presidency—but there is already a discreet dump-Mitterrand move afoot in his party, rallying around heir apparent Michel Rocard.

On the opposite side, the Gaullists, too, are temporarily in-turned on their own squabbles since a substantial wing split to support Giscard’s candidate as head of the National Assembly, delivering a blow to that other presidential hopeful, Jacques Chirac. “If the 1981 elections were held tomorrow, no doubt about it—Giscard would win in a landslide,” says L'Express columnist, Olivier Todd.

The French, it is said, like their history served up with brinkmanship, each decade punctuated neatly by a crisis which threatens to destroy the entire social fabric but in the end leaves it essentially unaltered. It provides a kind of collective catharsis, without the muss or fuss of a revolt. The breakdown of 1958 which launched De G aulle’s return. The merry trauma of May, 1968, when students barricaded themselves into the Latin Quarter roaring for change and inciting the entire nation to a month-long standstill. Now, 10 years later, France has once more hurtled to the edge of the precipice; has escaped by a hair’s breadth from that modern spectre, Eurocommunism; and once more it lies in collective torpor, anesthetized, half the country still stunned by the bitterness of dashed hopes, the other half by sheer relief. On May Day, when police braced for the outraged howl of betrayed workers, barely enough showed up to constitute a relatively disorderly parade. On the anniversary of May ’68, students dutifully studied for exams or gave in to disco-fever, while recalling les événements with nostalgia and fondly watching TV interviews with that elder statesman of the revolution, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the dread “Danny the Red,” who has grown plump and fathered offspring in his German exile and now bleats to be allowed back home. The question that is now slowly forming, however, is how long this sedated climate will last.

Even economist Christian Stoffaes, one of a select corps of thinkers in the ministry of industry charged with restructuring France’s industrial base, sounds the alarm. Although he supports Barre’s tough line, he does not think that the French as a nation are willing to toe the line necessary to pull them out of the economic doldrums— to accept a period of stiff inflation and high unemployment in the promise of a brighter tomorrow a decade away. “Personally, I’m pessimistic,” he says. Nouvelle économiste Jacques Attali, 32, one of the socialists’ key thinkers, warns that protracted high unemployment with no effort to right social inequities is almost guaranteed to produce a wave of political violence similar to that in Italy. Columnist Todd of L'Express agrees. “I can’t see how we won’t have a boomerang soon,” he says.

Much as Giscard might try to distance himself from them, his and France’s fortunes hang on the economy and those measures by which he hopes to win over the alienated into the mainstream of his vision. As if he is once more beginning, he treads the streets of a tiny mountain village on foot, he takes an accordion in his hands, he squeezes out the promise of happy endings. Slowly his helicopter mounts again into the blackness of a midnight sky; from its bubble, nothing can be seen of the way ahead, but his words echo across the stillness. “I am undiscourageable,” he says. ■$>