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Mlle. Giscard Rescues a Wilting Azalea Festival

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In recent years the Norfolk, Va. International Azalea Festival had fallen on lean times, like the NATO alliance it was founded to celebrate. Once, presidential daughters Luci and Lynda Johnson and Tricia Nixon reigned as the festival’s queen. More often, however, the 22-year-old pageant has had to fall back on less illustrious monarchs. “This year, by choosing a queen from France, we hoped to give the festival a shot in the arm,” an official confided.

Never mind that France hasn’t been a full partner in NATO since the days of President Charles de Gaulle, the festival decided to put the bloom back in its azaleas by crowning as its queen none other than Valérie-Anne Giscard d’Estaing, 21, daughter of the French president.

Oddly, though the attractive Valérie-Anne made something of a splash while campaigning for her father in last spring’s election, the French press has largely ignored her. All that changed when she was named Queen Azalea. Landing in Norfolk, naval headquarters for NATO, like D-Day in reverse, more than 100 Gallic reporters and photographers scrambled to stalk her through the week-long festivities.

Oldest of the French president’s four children, Valérie-Anne is a technical adviser to the minister of culture. She plays the piano, likes opera, has a passion for Paul Klee and—unlike members of America’s First Family—is accustomed to personal freedom. “I have no security guard at home,” she explains. “I’m allowed to come and go as I please.” Parisians often see her riding on her motorbike along the busy Champs Elysées, and she lives alone in a Left Bank apartment. “I hate to cook, and I eat out at restaurants five times a week,” she says. “Every night I attend some cultural event. It’s my job and I love it.”

Festival officials in Norfolk found Valérie-Anne both cooperative and tireless. Arriving with six gowns from the Paris fashion houses of Chanel, Courrèges and Scherrer, she was ushered through a thankless schedule of receptions and public appearances. “They’ve run her tail off this week, and she hasn’t complained a bit,” observed her official escort, Midshipman First Class Peter Engelman of the U.S. Naval Academy. “I’d describe her as quiet, intelligent and charming. And she’s really been a good sport. The other night we had to go to a square dance and she was afraid to try it. But once I showed her, she agreed it was fun, and we ended up having a good time.”

Interrupting her visit in Norfolk for a French embassy dance in her honor in Washington, Valérie-Anne chatted briefly with another presidential daughter, Susan Ford. “Frankly, Susan and I didn’t discuss anything very important,” she said later in her impeccable English. “Just the things young people talk about.”

Back in Norfolk, she indulged her passion for art by making four visits to the Chrysler Museum, where numerous French paintings are housed. Once, slipping away from the ubiquitous French press corps, she was able to walk alone through the empty, echoing halls.

By Saturday night at the Azalea Ball, Valérie-Anne briefly surrendered to the strain of her week. Grabbing the arm of Gabriel de Bellescize, a counselor of the French embassy, she steered him into a ladies’ room, where she instantly lit up a cigarette. By the following Monday morning, Bellescize reminded her, she would be just another French worker, back on the job in Paris. “I’m tired,” the president’s daughter joked. “Maybe I won’t show up for work till Monday afternoon.”