Former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who led his country into a new modern era and onto a firmly pro-European path, died late Wednesday of Covid-19, his family said.
Giscard, who had been in hospital several times in the last months for heart problems, died “surrounded by his family” at the family home in the Loire region.
“His state of health had worsened and he died as a consequence of Covid-19,” the family said in a statement sent to AFP, adding that his funeral would be strictly private according to his wishes.
He made one of his last public appearances on September 30 last year for the funeral of another former president, Jacques Chirac, who had been his prime minister.
Giscard became last century’s youngest president at 48 in 1974, beating his Socialist rival Francois Mitterrand, to whom he then lost after his seven-year term in 1981 in a failed re-election bid.
His presidency marked a clear break from the Gaullist conservatism of postwar France which had been dominated by Charles de Gaulle himself, and his successor Georges Pompidou.
In France he is remembered for his radical reform drive which included the legalisation of abortion, the liberalisation of divorce and lowering the voting age to 18.
In Europe, he helped drive moves towards a monetary union, in close cooperation with his German counterpart chancellor Helmut Schmidt with whom he became friends and whose leadership years almost dovetailed with his own.
Together they launched the European Monetary System (EMS), a precursor of today’s single currency, the euro.
“For Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Europe was to be a French ambition and France a modern nation. Respect,” said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
He “succeeded in modernising political life in France,” added former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he had felt “admiration” for Giscard, praising his “great intelligence” which he employed to master “even the most complex international problems”.
Like Schmidt, Giscard was also a firm believer in strong ties with the US.
With his death, France “has lost a statesman who chose to open up to the world,” added Sarkozy’s Socialist successor Francois Hollande. He hailed a man who was “resolutely European” who helped strengthen Franco-German unity.
It was at Giscard’s 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.
– ‘Dominated almost naturally’ –
With a more relaxed presidential style than his predecessors, “VGE” was sometimes seen in public playing football, or the accordion.
He also hosted garbage collectors to breakfast and invited himself to dinner at the homes of ordinary citizens.
Giscard involved his family in his political appearances, had the blue and red of France’s “tricolore” 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.
Born to a well-to-do French family, Giscard was firmly part of the elite.
Tall and slender and with an elegant, aristocratic manner, he studied at France’s elite Ecole Polytechnique and the National Administration School.
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.
After his defeat in 1981 — which he said left him with “frustration at a job unfinished” — he remained active in centrist politics, first regaining a seat in the French parliament and then serving in the European Parliament.
In 2001 was selected by European leaders to lead work on the bloc’s constitutional treaty — which French voters then rejected.
In 2004, after losing his legislative seat, Giscard ended his active political career.
The death of Mitterrand in 1996 followed by that of his successor Chirac in 2019 had left Giscard France’s oldest surviving leader by far.
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”.