The former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a key architect of European integration in the early 1970s, has died at the age of 94 after contracting Covid-19.
Giscard, who served as France’s leader from 1974 to 1981, had recently been hospitalised in Tours with respiratory problems, and was released only to return to hospital in mid-November.
He died at his family home nearby after suffering from complications linked to the virus, according to a statement issued by the foundation he had set up and chaired.
“His state of health had worsened and he died as a consequence of Covid-19,” his family said in a statement to AFP.
The Foundation Valéry Giscard d’Estaing tweeted on Wednesday: “In accordance with his wishes, his funeral will take place in the strictest family intimacy.”
He made one of his last public appearances on 30 September last year for the funeral of another former president, Jacques Chirac, who had been his prime minister.
Giscard was known for steering the modernisation of French society during his presidency, including allowing divorce by mutual consent and legalising abortion.
He was elected president at 48, coming to power after years of Gaullist rule, and sought to liberalise the economy and social attitudes. He was credited with launching major projects including France’s high-speed TGV train network.
He lost his re-election bid, however, to the socialist François Mitterrand in the aftermath of the global economic downturn of the 1970s.
In France, Giscard is remembered for his radical reform drive which included the legalisation of abortion, the liberalisation of divorce and lowering the voting age to 18.
Tributes poured in across the political spectrum in France on Wednesday. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy said Giscard had “worked his whole life to reinforce relations between European nations”.
The head of President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party in parliament, Christophe Castaner, said: “His modern and resolutely progressive policies … will long mark his legacy.”
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.
Michel Barnier, the lead EU negotiator in Brexit talks with Britain, said: “For Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Europe needed to be a French ambition and France a modern nation. Respect.”
He was also an ardent Anglophile, and took office a year after Britain joined the European Economic Community.
“Complete love-hate relationship with our country,” Britain’s former Europe minister in the early 2000s, Denis MacShane, said in a tweet, calling Giscard a “big politician” who changed Europe.
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 club.
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 “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; 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 second world war liberation of Paris from its Nazi occupiers in 1944. He then served for eight months in Germany and Austria in the run-up to Germany’s capitulation.
He launched his political career in 1959, becoming finance minister in 1969.
In 1974, while in power, VGE – married since 1952 to the aristocratic Anne-Aymone (née) Sauvage de Brantes – was reported to have crashed a borrowed sports car into a milk lorry in Paris in the early hours, with a celebrated actress in the passenger seat. After leaving the Élysée he wrote books mentioning his affairs and a novel that hinted that Diana, the Princess of Wales, had not been able to resist his charms. He later insisted the stories were untrue and “fiction”.
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.
In 2020, he was accused of sexual harassment in a legal complaint lodged by a German journalist. Ann-Kathrin Stracke claimed he repeatedly touched her bottom during an interview at his office on Boulevard Saint-Germain, in Paris, at the end of 2018. She lodged a complaint on 10 March with the Paris public prosecutor’s office.
Olivier Revol, VGE’s chief of staff, said the former president had “no recollection” of the interview or the incident.