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Valery Giscard d'Estaing: Former French president dies from Covid aged 94

Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who led his country to a firmly pro-European path, died on Wednesday aged 94 after contracting Covid-19, his family said.

Giscard, who had been in hospital several times in the past few months for heart problems, died "surrounded by his family" at their home in the Loire region, his family said in a statement.

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 the youngest ever 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 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 push moves towards a monetary union, in close co-operation with his German counterpart chancellor Helmut Schmidt, with whom he became friends.

"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.

Like Schmidt, he was also a firm believer in strong ties with the United States and internationalism.

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.

From the Resistance to power

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.

In 1966 he founded the Independent Republicans party, which eventually became the Union for French Democracy (UDF) – a formation of disparate centre-right parties.

He emerged as the centre-right leader in the run up to his election in 1974.

With a more relaxed presidential style than his predecessors, he was sometimes seen in public playing soccer, 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 down.

Modernising France

Giscard d'Estaing brought a wind of change to French politics during his seven-year mandate, breaking with the conservatism that dominated after the Second World War.

Elected in 1974 at the age of 48, the centrist leader known to most French people simply as Giscard or VGE quickly ushered through a spree of radical reforms to abortion and the voting age.

During his single seven-year mandate, Giscard launched far-reaching infrastructure modernisation projects, like the high-speed TGV train, and committed France to nuclear power.

It was a blow to Giscard, who wrote in 2006: "What I feel, is not humiliation but something more serious: frustration at a job unfinished."

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

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

He remained active in politics, however, regaining a seat in the French parliament.

He also served as a European parliamentarian (1989-1993) and in 2001 was selected by European leaders to lead work on the bloc's constitutional treaty – which was then rejected by 55 per cent of French voters.

In 2004, after losing his legislative seat, Giscard ended his active political career.

Retirement and racy novels

The death of Mitterrand in 1996 followed by the passing of the socialist's successor Chirac in 2019 left Giscard as France's oldest surviving leader.

In retirement he gained a penchant for writing racy novels, including the 2009 The Princess and the President that recounts a romance between a French leader and a British princess. It was so evocative of the late Princess Diana that it sparked speculation about real-life inspiration.

In 2003 he became the first former head of state to be named to the French Academy, reserved for the country's literary elite – a recognition more of his writing in political and analytical books than his fiction.

Giscard married Anne-Aymone de Brantes, the daughter of an officer in the French resistance who died in a Nazi concentration camp. The couple had two daughters and two sons.

He forged a powerful Franco-German alliance with Schmidt - the pair spearheading the European Economic and Monetary Union that laid the groundwork for an eventual single currency.

Symbolically, he had been born in the German city of Koblenz while it was under French occupation in the aftermath of World War I.

'Job unfinished' after diamond scandal

Giscard's term was also buffeted by the 1970s shock rise in oil prices, rising unemployment and inflation.

It was during his presidency that in January 1979 the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from power.

Just over a week before, Giscard had hosted his West German, US and British counterparts for a summit on the French territory of Guadeloupe at which they agreed the shah was set to fall.

Giscard's October 1976 visit to Tehran for talks with the shah remains to this day the last visit by a French head of state to Iran.

His reputation was tarnished by claims in 1979 that he had personally received diamonds, while finance minister, from brutal Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

Despite his denials, the scandal cast a shadow over his bid for a second term which he lost to the Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981 by more than one million votes.

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