Even by the imperial standards of the French presidents, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing possessed an incomparable sense of arrogance and grandeur; Giscard, whose father borrowed the suffix “d’Estaing” from a distantly-related extinct noble family, surrounded himself with furniture and art objects which once belonged to King Louis XV. He ordered his prime ministers to walk three paces behind him; like the Bourbon kings, he did not allow anyone to sit in front of him and ate his meals staring at an empty place.
On 10 May 1981, Giscard narrowly lost the re-election; the infighting between Rightist factions, Giscard’s Union pour la démocratie Française (UDF), and Jacques Chirac’s neo-Gaullist Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) led to the Socialists winning the presidency for the first and the only time in the Fifth Republic. Nine days after the election, Giscard gave a television address to bid the nation farewell before handing over power to the Socialists’ François Mitterrand.
It was one of the memorable moments in French politics; even today, film makers study it and students write dissertations about it. In an uncharacteristic bout of humility, Giscard acknowledged his unfulfilled visions and middling achievements. He also arrogantly hinted that when his fellow citizens realized their errors of replacing him, they would summon him back to power, and he would be ready. Like a schoolmaster lecturing a class, he chided his countrymen, and warned them of tough times ahead. In an especially memorable climax, he said:
“Et dans ces temps difficiles, où le mal rôde et frappe dans le monde, je souhaite que la Providence veille sur la France, pour son bonheur, pour son bien et pour sa grandeur.
And in these difficult times, when evil lurks and strikes in the world, I wish that Providence looks out for France, for her happiness, for her well-being and for her greatness.”
After a pause, Giscard ended the speech with a funereal “au revoir”, paused again for emphasis, and left his chair. Finally, as he left the screen, the camera focussed melodramatically on his empty desk and chair and La Marseillaise played on for next 53 seconds. It was a conclusion simultaneously solemn and farcical, and was later much parodied. The symbolism behind the empty chair was clear, but the void was felt more by Giscard than the nation, however. In the next several years, he struggled with his transformation from ‘le roi Giscard’ to ‘Monsieur l’Ex’. Although France never summoned him back, he eventually found a second career as an ardent proponent of the European Union or as the New York Times put it, the United Europe’s Thomas Jefferson.
As for the man who succeeded him, François Mitterrand would come into office on 21st May with even a bigger media spectacle, as we shall see tomorrow.
[I am tiptoeing the line between iconic photos and iconic videos now, but today and tomorrow will be exceptions, not new rules. Giscard’s address is so famous an Ur-text of image making that I have to cover it here. I was also amazed to find out recently that not many people outside France know about it (and most inside France has already forgotten about it). While researching, I noticed someone has recently written about it (or rather recently translated some old articles) and decided to copy his style of two dual posts on Giscard’s farewell and Mitterrand’s grand entrance.]
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