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Ex-President Giscard Shows France You Can Take the Man Out of Politics, but You Can't Take Politics Out of the Man

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Last year, when the people of France turned him out of the Presidency, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing bade them a churlish goodbye. In his farewell address he chided his countrymen, who had replaced him with Socialist Francois Mitterrand, and warned them of tough times ahead. Then, in a memorable piece of television melodrama, he turned his back on the audience, walking away from the camera while a tape played the Marseillaise. This was le roi Giscard, whose father borrowed the suffix “d’Estaing” from the name of an extinct noble family. As President, Giscard surrounded himself with furniture and art objects which once belonged to King Louis XV, managed affairs of state with the aloofness of a Bourbon monarch, and scrupulously maintained his image as a privileged aristocrat even while unemployment rose in his realm. When the voters sent him home to his ancestral château near Chamalières in central France, he arrogantly hinted that when his fellow citizens realized their errors, they would summon him back to power.

In the meantime, though, anonymity hung on his shoulders as uncomfortably as a shabby suit. Last month Giscard reentered politics, campaigning for the surprisingly modest post of conseiller général of Chamalières, an office with all the power and prestige of an American county commissioner. The unpaid job involves responsibility for public works and the local budget. It was an easy election; Giscard’s portrait still hangs in the town hall, in the place normally reserved for the image of the sitting President, and he remains the popular seigneur of his little pocket of the Auvergne. An impressive 72 percent of the electors chose him. His timing could not have been better; in simultaneous local elections, Mitterrand’s Socialist-dominated coalition suffered setbacks throughout the country. But the ex-President refuses to credit his gain to his adversary’s loss: “I prefer to call my winning affection rather than election.”

The Giscard who pressed the flesh of townsfolk to win that affection looked nothing like the old imperial President. He abandoned his chauffeured limousine for a Peugeot sedan, which he drove himself, and closeted his pinstripes in favor of rough-hewn rustic suits. When he heard that a visiting American reporter was looking for him, he even headed to the local airport to track her down. But when he is asked if this betokens a new Giscard, he bristles. “The image was very superficial,” he says. “The function of the Presidency carries with it certain obligations of appearance. In reality, people like the image of prestige. I did it for the reputation of France. I don’t regret it.”

If Giscard is plotting a return to power, he will have to bide his time. The next presidential election in France will be in 1988. For the moment, at least, he seems to relish his role as provincial public servant. “I am at home here,” he says. “I do not miss the life of the Presidency. The quality of human relations is better now. I’m close to my children. When you are President, you are alone. You can’t have easy relationships with people.”

Some observers are unwilling to count him out of the national scene. “To see a man of such political capacity outside of political life would be absurd,” says Giscard’s former Minister of Culture and Environment, Michel d’Ornano. Some claim that Giscard is planning to form a new centrist political party. Last month he aided those rumors by organizing a 40-member “Council for the Future of France” to advise him. Giscard declines to speculate on such possibilities. He does admit that he is writing a book of ruminations on France’s destiny. “Reflections without content are useless,” he adds. “I want to contribute to France’s future. I’m interested in starting a new force.”