Le Roi Giscard

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

  • La Saga des Giscard by Pol Bruno
    Ramsay, 264 pp, May 1980, ISBN 2 85956 185 4

As far back as we can go (at least according to Pol Bruno), the Giscard family seems to have belonged to the bourgeoisie of the Auvergne. In the maternal line they were businessmen, probably of peasant origin, who later became men of law. Edmond Giscard, father of the French President, ‘came up’ to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, attended the semi-serious, semi-fashionable lectures at the École des Sciences Politiques, and then married a Mademoiselle Bardoux. The Bardoux were a typical Third Republic ‘bourgeois dynasty’. The father, Agénor Bardoux, was a minister from 1877 to 1879. Although of very moderate opinions, during the 1870s Agénor had no hesitation in opting for republicanism rather than for the monarchy. The son, Jacques, married into another upper-middle-class French family, the Georges-Picots; in 1920, his journalistic activities brought him into close touch with the heavy industry employers’ association (the Comité des Forges), and with the iron and steel-making lineage of the de Wendels. In 1922, the granddaughter, May Bardoux, married Edmond Giscard, the President’s father. René Giscard, Edmond’s brother, married into another republican dynasty, the Carnot family.

In 1922-23, the Conseil d’État rather grudgingly granted Edmond the right to add to his name that of an illustrious though partially extinct noble family, the d’Estaings, with which he had no kinship. This commoner was obviously tormented by the problem of names and nobility, and he produced quite a long apologia on the subject in a work with the strange title of The Inner Monarchy: An Essay on One’s Seigniory over Oneself (1949). Edmond had literary ambitions which, while they produced no very obvious results, at least got him elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. I once met him at that Areopagus, where I had gone to read a paper on quantitative history. The impression Edmond made on me was that of a wily, mistrustful Auvergnat, rather like a Pompidou or a Pierre Laval. He was much more a Giscard than a d’Estaing. ‘So you believe in your figures, do you?’ he asked me, with a kind of suspicious benevolence.

Edmond, in fact, was a remarkable man of business: throughout his life, initially under the auspices of the Bank of Indochina, he presided over a company specialising in transactions with the French colonies of the time. During the 1930s, Edmond Giscard d’Estaing was a member of the ‘Croix-de-Feu’, the political party led by Colonel de La Roque. This right-wing agitator, let me hasten to say, was in no way an Adolf Hitler. Later, under the Vichy regime, Edmond came under the sphere of influence of Marshal Pétain, though he was not without some genuine sympathy for Pierre Mendès-France, then unjustly persecuted. Jacques Bardoux, on the other hand, committed himself explicitly to the Marshal’s cause, and up till September 1942 displayed a discreet, though theoretical reverence for the German Army as an institution. Pol Bruno reproaches the Chief of State somewhat insistently for this Vichyist ancestry, but here he seems to me to be casting his net too wide: good heavens, no one is responsible for his father, and even less for his grandfather. Where should we get if we applied the same criteria to the genealogies of the most diverse of our contemporaries?

In 1944, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, son of Edmond, and at that time a schoolboy of 17, first worked for the Red Cross, and then enlisted in de Lattre de Tassigny’s army. This very honourable act is interpreted by the suspicious Pol Bruno as being already political. No doubt Bruno is trying to insinuate that Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was thus preparing in advance the dossier he would need as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic!

The sequel belongs to the history of France, or at least to that part of it that is superficial and factual. Valéry gently edged his grandfather Bardoux onto the sidelines and succeeded him as Deputy for the Puy-de-Dôme. Then, after a few transitions, he became General de Gaulle’s Finance Minister. Around 1960, he seems to have had some private sympathy for those who wished to see Algeria remain French. He was certainly not the only one. After a spell in opposition, Giscard became President Pompidou’s Finance Minister and then, in 1974, President of the Republic. The 1981 elections will decide whether this great career is to be continued or interrupted.

A preliminary evaluation of his seven-year Presidency may now be attempted. Starting with the economy: the performance of the Giscard-Barre team has not been especially brilliant, but could it have been any better, given the international climate? To confine ourselves to trivial but pertinent statements: in terms of unemployment and inflation, France has done less well than Germany but better than England. If there is any merit in this, it can to some extent be attributed to the President or to the Government, but mostly to the French themselves! For the rest, liberties have been maintained under Giscard’s reign, though we should not see that as a particularly remarkable exploit. We should note, however, that the authoritarian seizure of this or that newspaper, which happened frequently under de Gaulle, has never, since 1974, occurred under his successor.

There has been much criticism, especially outside France, of the ‘monarchisation’ of the regime. According to the polls, however, it would appear that this doesn’t in the least worry the French electorate. Even so, it is worth mentioning. In France, neither more nor less than in West Germany, England and the United States, power has become personalised. His function has made Giscard into a television personality. This role has given him an inevitable importance, in exactly the same way as it has to Schmidt, Thatcher and Reagan. We may deplore this evolution, which is common to several democratic countries, but in all good faith we cannot consider it a step towards monarchy. In fact, there are (at least) two democracies in which this personalisation plays no part: Switzerland and Italy. In Switzerland, the absence of any sort of charisma around the man temporarily in power is a wholly positive phenomenon. In Italy, on the other hand, a system analogous to our Fourth Republic is still ‘functioning’. And one sometimes regrets that a peninsular de Gaulle has not appeared to put the democracy of our ‘Latin sister’ back on the rails.

The French political system displays some original characteristics, and some that are less original: we imported the practice of electing our President by universal suffrage from the United States, a country in which this was the legacy of a monarchism inherited from 18th-century Europe and reinterpreted by Montesquieu. In this sense, Giscard is neither more nor less of a monarch than Carter or Reagan. It is nevertheless true that parliamentarism, whether of the English or American variety, has never completely taken root in France. De Gaulle’s accession to power in 1958 reacted against the specifically Parisian inefficiency of the assembly system. It is in this domain that the French presidential prerogative is for the moment more personalised than in the USA. Finally, a third French characteristic: there is a whole political class made up of énarques (former students of the École Nationale d’Administration), whose activities transform the personages thus familiarly nicknamed into the successors of the Ancien Régime’s rapporteurs of the Council of State (Maîtres des Requêtes). In the Councils of our Bourbon kings, these Maîtres des Requêtes were the monarchical ‘deciders’. So there is an incontestable continuity here between the monarchy of the 18th century and the republic of the latter part of the 20th century.

However that may be, none of this yet makes Giscard the equivalent of Louis XV, even if in private the President shows a certain admiration for that penultimate absolute monarch. Louis XV was a good king, and his misdemeanours were of little importance.

It is in the realm of foreign policy that a critical evaluation of Giscardism is necessary. The very fact that Brezhnev recently came out in favour of the re-election of our President must give rise to some vigilance. First, a few reflections on the difficult problem of our relations with Israel and the Arab world. Let us say that France’s so-called pro-Arab policy has created some confusion, and some frustration. This frustration is honourable and understandable, but it is sometimes inadequately expressed. Certain excellent journalists, notably on the New York Times, have seen a connection between the anti-Zionism rightly or wrongly imputed to Giscard’s policies and an anti-semitism which is indeed absolutely odious, but which there is a totally unjustified tendency, on the other side of the Atlantic, to attribute to France as a whole.

The crime in the Rue Copernic became a ‘media event’ in the United States: it made the front page of the newspapers and was given prime viewing time on television. In fact, the authors of this crime are still unknown and, whether they are French or foreign, they are totally unrepresentative of any French political tendency whatsoever. Yet when it happened a wave of suspicion towards so-called Giscardian France submerged American public opinion from coast to coast. I happened to be in Los Angeles, where a girl asked me: ‘What’s the latest news of the anti-semitic riots in France?’ It was useless my telling her that these ‘riots’ had only ever existed in the fevered imagination of certain of her ill-informed compatriots. She didn’t want to believe me. And I suddenly had the degrading impression that I was being taken for a citizen of pre-Nazi Germany in 1932, or of the Russia of the pogroms of the years following 1900.

The English translation of Bernard Henry-Lévy’s deplorable book, L’Idéologie Française, a book swarming with errors and systematic deformations, but also with more or less good intentions, will only be able to reinforce these misunderstandings about my country.[*] Let me repeat: French guilt towards the Jews between 1940 and 1944, even in the exceptional context of the German Occupation, is incontestable, but there is no justification for any extrapolation that would lead to Giscard’s Fifth Republic being accused of the same taint. It remains true that Giscard’s policy towards Israel has not always been conspicuous by its subtlety. And the delivery of atomic equipment to Iraq is in every way to be condemned.

Let us now consider the real flaws, or black spots, of the French President’s policies, even though some of these flaws seem to have been largely corrected today. I am referring to his attitude to the USSR and the invasion of Afghanistan. There is no point in insisting on the errors committed at the time: they were crowned by Giscard’s visit to Warsaw, which enabled Brezhnev to put himself in a more favourable position vis-à-vis international opinion, which very rightly disapproved of the Soviet leader’s invasion of a defenceless, neutral country. Many explanations of the Chief of State’s attitude have been put forward. Not being a professional Giscardologist, I shall confine myself to enumerating these explanations, and I shall not claim to be able to point to the right one. There has been criticism, for example, of the influence of Samuel Pisar, a friend of the President and a firm advocate of East-West trade, who wrongly imagines that an intensification of commercial exchanges between the West and the USSR can only reinforce détente. It has also been claimed that Giscard was ill-informed about the logic of Soviet ideology; it has been said that he sees the USSR simply as the heir to eternal Russia, and hence as a power with which it is always possible to come to terms, in return for a few territorial arrangements.

I do not know whether this is the right explanation. In any case, I hope that Giscardian indulgence towards the USSR will not extend to the position France takes in relation to the Polish problem. The learned television interview accorded by the Chief of State, in the course of which he reminded the Poles of a fact of which they are only too well aware – that they are the victims of their geographical encirclement by Russia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia – was not entirely to my taste. A man who considers himself to be, after his own fashion, the Presidential heir of General de Gaulle ought perhaps in the first instance to express his mistrust for the spirit of Yalta. Do we need to be reminded that it was this conference that placed Poland in the Soviet camp, against the explicit and democratic will of the Poles themselves?

Having made these reservations, I shall, I think, be allowed to labour a fairly obvious point and repeat that, in the face of all opposition, the President has for some years managed to secure the symbolic continuity of the State – in other words, of the national community. This ‘exploit’ is nothing unusual in England. But it is substantial in France, a country that has worn out ten constitutions in two centuries. From this point of view, the results of Giscardism are, to my mind, positive. Having awarded this satisfecit, I feel even freer to hazard a criticism. Shall I say that, on certain points, it seems to me that our President is out of touch with the prevailing susceptibilities of our times. The fact that, in these days of ecology and of the conservation of animal and plant species, the Chief of State should occasionally go big-game hunting in Africa seems to me to demonstrate a total incomprehension of the culture of the young and not so young in the 1980s. Moreover it is this tendency, not to say this mania, which has provoked the principal personal attacks against him – often very unfair – over his relations with Bokassa, his hunting trips to the Central African Republic and the diamonds affair. We no longer live in the 17th or 18th century, when excellent statesmen – Mazarin, Colbert, the Regent, Fleury – could permit themselves to diverge from the susceptibilities of their contemporaries yet still be appreciated for their contribution to the nation’s greatness.

If we want to do complete justice to Giscard, we should compare him with his rival Presidential candidates. Mitterrand is a highly respected man who has made himself the equal of his great predecessors in opposition, Jaurès, Léon Blum, Mendès-France, Thorez, but his taste for the nationalisation and bureaucratisation of our industry is unjustified; nor do I understand his tyro’s fascination with Marxism. Jacques Chirac exhibits a theatrical and sometimes heart-warming energy, but in what way would he actually differ from our present President? After all, in days gone by, the Gaullism from which Chirac draws his inspiration made major concessions to the USSR, in comparison with which those made by Giscard are often nothing but venial sins. (I am thinking, for example, of the expulsion of the American troops from France in the 1960s.) Marie-France Garaud has said some basic things, particularly so far as our policies towards the Communist bloc are concerned. But she is really no more than a marginal candidate, and the sum total of her activities during the years when she actually occupied a place in the corridors of power, under Pompidou and Chirac, is not decisive. Michel Debré is a great gentleman, but his distrust of Germany has sometimes caused him to suffer from a certain myopia in relation to the Soviet bloc. As for Marchais, his present policies seem to bear the stamp of delirious rationality.

All things considered, I wonder whether Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is not, by and large, the least bad of our candidates.

[*] L’Idéologie Française by Bernard Henry-Lévy. Grasset, 340 pp., 59 frs, January 1981, 2 27 0697 5.