Elegant and also arrogant

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Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s life was closely linked to Germany. He and Helmut Schmidt not only shared a view of the world, but also the harmony of friendship into old age.

France’s former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was the epitome of the elegant man as a politician, as one finds him more reliable in the neighboring country than in Germany. Tall with a narrow intellectual skull, clad in the best thread, he was confident of victory on the international stage. He always kept an eye on beautiful women, which was a natural part of his kind. This is one of the reasons why he felt himself to be miles superior to the good Teutons, the uptight British and the squat Americans in terms of self-confidence and style.

In Giscard’s time, Paris was, even more than it is today, the metropolis of politicians and intellectuals, the boundaries being fluid. Giscard moved naturally among the bright and beautiful. He was always the youngest, the fastest, the modern. The title of nobility gave him his own aura among these commoners. The “de”, however, did not come from ancient times. His father had bought the title in 1922, four years before his son Valéry was born.

A close connection to Germany

Giscard’s life was closely connected with Germany, even back when France was once again the hereditary enemy. Giscard was born in Koblenz when the Rhineland was under French occupation, a consequence of the lost war and the Treaty of Versailles. His father was the chief finance inspector of the French Rhine Army. Then came the Second World War, the Germans occupied Paris and singled out French Jews for the death camps. Giscard had just graduated from high school and at 18 he joined the Resistance and helped liberate Paris. Shortly afterwards he was in the first tank, which rolled into Constance in April 1945.

What does a young Frenchman, 19 years old and a courageous patriot, learn from these war experiences? That it has to stop. That it is time to let reconciliation grow out of enmity. That a Europe must be founded together. Giscard belonged to the generation of staunch Europeans who naturally claimed leadership in France on the path to economic integration. This Europe was designed to involve the Germans so that they could not start another war.

Giscard and Schmidt were also friends

Giscard was President from 1974 to 1981. His term of office coincided with Helmut Schmidt’s chancellorship. As far as the two were in terms of origin and habitus, they were so close in the big questions of their time. Both pragmatists. Both experts in financial and economic policy. Both Europeans without illusions. Both skeptical Atlanticists and even more skeptical detente politicians. And Schmidt accepted the political primacy for France, even if his country was now economically much stronger and more modern.

The two met, they liked each other, and they became friends. I can well imagine that they would agree on the assessment of other heads of state and government. Ronald Reagan: Actor, B-Ware, a dangerous joke. Margaret Thatcher: Woman with eggs, so to speak (you could still say that back then). Leonid Brezhnev: a lot of alcohol, otherwise Upper Volta with nuclear weapons. Helmut and Valéry were also allies in arrogance, which seemed quite natural to them.

Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt: Both Europeans without illusions. (Source: AP / dpa)

The older they got, Giscard and Schmidt, the more touching they were with each other. The ex-Chancellor sat in a wheelchair and increasingly looked like a monument to himself, his head tilted slightly to one side, with the hint of a smile, nothing more, because the situation was always highly problematic. The other, Giscard, was standing slightly hunched over, with a faint smile, careful and perfect in form, becoming more and more like a wise smiling owl.

There is a moving photo of Helmut Schmidt’s funeral act in Michel: Giscard is standing in a black coat, buttoned in two rows, and looks around searchingly, as if he cannot believe that his old companion is not sitting in the row next to him, but over there lies in the coffin.

Five years ago, Henry Kissinger gave the speech at the Michel. Along with Jimmy Carter, he is one of the few survivors who made history in the sixties and seventies of the last century. Kissinger is three years older than Valéry Marie René Georges Giscard d’Estaing, who can now blaspheme on cloud nine with his friend Helmut about these useless successors down there. It is granted to them.

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