France mourns 'great European' Giscard after Covid death

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  • Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing has died due to Covid-19 complications.
  • He governed France for seven years from 1974 to 1981.
  • During his tenure as president, France made great strides in nuclear power and legalised abortion.

Tributes poured in Thursday after the death of former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing from Covid-19 aged 94, with French and European leaders hailing him as an ambitious reformer and great statesman.

Giscard, who had been in hospital several times in the last months for heart problems, died surrounded by his family on Wednesday at the family estate, the family said in a statement.

He governed for a single seven-year term from 1974-1981, when France made great strides in nuclear power and high-speed train travel and legalised abortion.

He ensured that Paris was at the heart of Europe in a post-war partnership with Germany and also played a key role in what would become the G7 group of major world powers.

In contrast to his predecessors Georges Pompidou and Charles de Gaulle, he was an accessible and media-savvy politician who enjoyed meeting voters. But he also never shook off a sometimes haughty demeanour linked to his aristocratic background.

His ambition to go down as one of France's greatest leaders was derailed in 1981 when he lost his bid for a second term to Socialist rival Francois Mitterrand.

- 'Guides our way' -

"His seven-year mandate transformed France," President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement.

"The direction he set for France still guides our way... his death has plunged the French nation into mourning," Macron, who has sometimes been compared to Giscard, said.

Macron will address the nation to pay tribute to Giscard, the Elysee said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel mourned the loss of a "great European" and said Germany had lost "a friend."

Tweeting in French and English, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Giscard a "hugely important figure in modernising France".

Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker recalled Giscard's "great ambition for the continent".

Giscard launched a radical reform drive that included legalising abortion, making it easier for couples to divorce and lowering the voting age to 18.

In Europe, Giscard helped the push towards a monetary union in cooperation with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, launching a European exchange rate system that was a precursor to the euro.

The europhile president was born in the German city of Koblenz while it was under French occupation in the aftermath of World War I.

It was at his initiative that leaders of the world's richest countries first met in 1975, an event that evolved into the annual summits of the Group of Seven (G7) club.

Some commentators have compared Macron to the centre-right Giscard, who until the incumbent president arrived at the Elysee aged just 39 in 2017 was modern France's youngest head of state having won office aged 48.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex hailed a "man of progress" whose social reforms remained "deeply relevant" for young people and women.

He "succeeded in modernising political life in France", added former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

- 'Not always understood' -

Tall and slender with an elegant, aristocratic manner, he studied at elite schools - Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

Aged just 18, he joined the French Resistance and took part in the World War II liberation of Paris from its Nazi occupiers in 1944. He then served for eight months in Germany and Austria in the run-up to the capitulation of the Third Reich.

He launched his political career in 1959, becoming finance minister in 1969.

With a more relaxed presidential style than his predecessors, "VGE" was sometimes seen in public playing football, or the accordion.

Giscard involved his family in his political appearances, had the blue and red of France's tricolour flag toned down, and the Marseillaise national anthem slowed.

Giscard "dominated almost naturally with his presence, his distinction, his language, his liveliness and intuitions", said fellow centrist Francois Bayrou, a former minister and presidential candidate.

But Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande noted in his tribute that balancing his desire to be a man of the people with his background and education was not always easy.

"Aware of his great intelligence which he put at the service of his country, he hoped to appear as a simple president and close to the French. He was not always understood," said Hollande.

After his defeat in 1981 - which he said left him with "frustration at a job unfinished" - Giscard remained active in centrist politics, first regaining a seat in the French parliament and then serving in the European Parliament.

In 2001, he was selected by European leaders to lead work on the bloc's constitutional treaty - which French voters then rejected.

He made one of his last public appearances on 30 September last year for the funeral of another former president, Jacques Chirac, who had been his prime minister.

Giscard's family said that according to his wishes funeral ceremonies would take place in the "strictest intimacy".

In May 2020, French prosecutors opened an investigation after claims by a German reporter that he had repeatedly inappropriately touched her at his Paris office after an interview in 2018.

But Giscard strongly denied the allegations, describing them as "grotesque".


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