The Giscard Presidency 1974-1981:

Towards a New France

Hugh Dauncey

[Introduction] [Conclusion]


    The Giscard presidency was the fourth presidency of the Fifth Republic created by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. After eleven years under de Gaulle from 1958-1969, during which the General was elected to a second seven-year term in 1965, before resigning in 1969, and the short presidency (1969-74) of Georges Pompidou which was brought prematurely to an end by his death from cancer, the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1974 seemed to mark a change of generation in French politics. In society, culture and economics as well as politics, the 1970s in France seemed to represent the nation's accession to modernity, exemplifying the way in which France was now a 'new' France which had broken with the past and her old weaknesses in politics and outdated approaches to business and industry, and was becoming - culturally - a truly modern society. Institutionally, by 1974, the Constitution of 1958 had already demonstrated that it provided a workable framework for politics and government: not only had the Fifth Republic by then already equalled the longevity of the Fourth Republic (1946-1958), but the 'rules of the game' set up by de Gaulle during the Algerian crisis in 1958 and modified in 1962 had allowed France to weather the storms of the mass social and political discontent of May '68, and had been shown to survive the resignation and death of their charismatic creator in 1970. As the early Seventies progressed, and as the illness of Georges Pompidou began to signal an early presidential election, it seemed more and more likely that the new presidency would mark a turning point in politics and society, as de Gaulle's successor would be replaced by a right-wing president freer of the influence of the general, or, possibly, by a left-wing politician, thus ending sixteen years of domination of politics by the right in the Fifth Republic. What was less clear, in the early years of the decade, was that the Giscard presidency would also to mark a major change in France's economy and in French society, as the years of rapid growth and rising prosperity of the post-war era were interrupted by the world oil crisis and raw materials price increases and the inflation and unemployment that they created in Western economies. The events of May '68, which saw mass revolt by students and workers, the transformation of important central areas of Paris into no-go zones for the police circled by student-defended barricades of blazing cars and street furniture, a lengthy general strike and an apparent paralysis of government were a key indicator of many of the tensions present in French society in the late 1960s. The prolongation of those tensions and the repercussions of the protests of May '68 inform any understanding of France in the 1970s and of the Giscard presidency. Explanations of May '68 are many and varied, but it seems sensible to interpret the real dissatisfaction of students and workers as a reflection of a general malaise of French society. Despite the economic success of the 1950s and 1960s, France had been made fragile by the post-war demographic boom which had produced the opportunity for a generational divide between the increasingly liberated young people of the 1960s and their parents; the economic progress following the reconstruction of the 1940s has similarly not been without costs, as agriculture and industry rapidly restructured, forcing people to change lifestyles and modifying the relations between different groups in society. Politically, many felt that de Gaulle's style of government was too 'autocratic' and technocratic, and that somehow citizens were being excluded from decision-making about their own, and France's future. May '68 was about all of these unresolved tensions and more, and after the provisional resolution of the crisis in June 1968 and de Gaulle's resignation in April 1969, the Pompidou presidency attempted to address some of the issues. In many ways, the period 1969-74 was an intriguing interregnum during which France came to terms with the absence of de Gaulle and negotiated the Gaullist succession to the general in the form of Pompidou's continuation of l'Etat UDR, sans le général. Weakened by illness during much of his term and preoccupied by party problems within the UDR, Pompidou was arguably unable to do much, directly, to reconcile French society's differences and to defuse the tensions inherited from growth and Gaullism. Indeed, Prime minister Chaban-Delmas' project of la Nouvelle société was inimical to the President. Pompidou's own personality, which led him to view social and political change as fundamentally long-term phenomena not susceptible of volontarist government intervention encouraged an approach to the aftermath of May '68 which emphasised continued growth and increasing prosperity as the essential mechanisms through which French society would manage its social, political and cultural modernisation, rather than government-led reforms. Politics in the Giscard presidency Jean-François Sirinelli has suggested that were it not for the restructuring of the right-wing parties which went on during 1974-1981, in terms of party politics, the Giscard presidency would have no interest except as an era of transition linking the years of Gaullist domination of political life to the double presidency of the socialist François Mitterrand (1981-1988, 1988-1995). Such a view is naturally somewhat exaggerated: although it is true that the politics of the right were particularly agitated in the 1970s and especially so around the two presidential elections of 1974 and 1981, the politics of the left were similarly fruitful in evolving power relations between the communists and the socialists. Politics in the Giscard presidency was also interesting for the ways in which the evolving political practices of the Fifth Republic gradually created a bipolar and quadripolar system of parties of the left and the right in opposition both within their own left- or right-wing pole and in competition with each other for parliamentary seats at legislative elections, or more crucially still, for the presidency itself, the greatest prize provided in the Constitution of 1958 and further 'presidentialised' in 1962. Political personalities were important, as leaders of parties, heads of factions within parties and even the President and Prime minister Jacques Chirac, struggled for pre-eminence within the evolving institutional and party systems. An indication of the importance of the period politically is that until relatively recently, the major figures of the Giscard presidency remained significant political personalities in contemporary politics. The politics of the right were marked essentially by the struggle for supremacy within the right wing in general between the Gaullists and the Giscardians. Within the Gaullist party there was also competition, here between those who claimed to represent the pure flame of Gaullism as fashioned by the general himself, and those who for reasons of personal ambition or political pragmatism, saw the need to renovate and to modernise. Giscard was the leader of the Républicains indépendants (RI), a centre-right party which existed in more or less easy collaboration with the Gaullist Union des Démocrates pour la République (UDR), the two parties together forming the right-wing 'bloc' of the bipolar electoral system. During the 1960s Giscard had been Finance minister in the Pompidou governments for a number of years and had come to the attention of de Gaulle as a young and exceptionally able parlementarian and economic technician. But the ideological identity of the RI - more liberally-inclined than the Gaullists - led to a strategy of 'autonomous association' with the Union pour la Nouvelle République (UNR), supporting the government and making up the 'majorité présidentielle' in parliament, but nevertheless reserving the right to disagree, famously summarised in 1967 by Giscard's 'Oui, mais. . .' attitude a year after being sacked from the cabinet. At the RI national conference in 1972, Giscard restated his long-held belief which was the root of tensions between him as president and the Gaullists: 'La France aspire à être gouvernée au centre'. As President, Giscard had to live with the National Assembly elected in 1973, in which the the right-wing parties enjoyed a marked majority of seats over the left-wing represented by the Communists, the Socialists and the Left Radicals. Such a 'presidential majority' was useful, but crucially, it was not the Giscardians (55 deputies) who were dominant within the grouping of right-wing parties, but the UDR (183 deputies); thus presidential policy had always to consider its acceptability to Gaullists accustoming themselves with difficulty to a non-Gaullist Head of State. The UDR was weakened however by the loss of its overall majority in the Assembly. Such a situation was a novelty in the Fifth Republic, and the fact that relations between president and parliament worked more or less satisfactorily proved that the new France of the post de Gaulle era was workable in reality. The composition of the cabinet was planned to reflect the delicate balance of forces between the RI and the UDR, with key ministerial post being shared out with care. Giscard's nomination of the relatively youthful Gaullist Jacques Chirac (41) rewarded him for the role he had played in facilitating Giscard's election. Chirac was one of the younger Gaullists, representative of trends towards the renovation of the movement and in conflict with 'Gaullistes historiques' of either left- or right-wing Gaullism such as Jacques Chaban-Delmas or Pierre Messmer. During the attempt to choose a single right-wing candidate to face Mitterrand in 1974 Chirac supported Giscard, and was seen as a traitor by many more traditional members of the UDR. The doubly uneasy alliance between UDR and RI in government and parliament in support of President Giscard worked tant bien que mal in the period 1974-76 until Chirac resigned as Prime minister and was replaced by the more personally and politically congenial Raymond Barre. According to the faithful Giscardian Michel d'Ornano, VGE's strategy was essentially to use Chirac to take over a disorganised and demoralised UDR and thus to create a new more liberal and more centrist majorité présidentielle, supportive and approving of his measures to reform French society. But by failing to dissolve the Assembly in 1974 and reverse the balance of forces between RI and UDR, Giscard condemned his plan to failure, leaving the door open to Chirac to continue his own take over of the UDR and creating the need for the liberal-centrist RI to reorganise around a new focus in the right wing block. It was these personal rivalries and ideological differences which led to Chirac's creation of the neo-Gaullist Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) in 1976 and the formation of the 'electoral umbrella' of the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDR) in 1978 in preparation for a divided right in the Legislative elections of 1978. The politics of the left were marked by the struggle between and difficult collaboration of the Socialist party (PS) led by François Mitterrand and the Communist party (PC) led by Georges Marchais. The Programme Commun of 1972 allowed the parties of the left to present Mitterrand as a joint candidate in 1974, but by the late-1970s, the cooperation between PS and PC had broken down because of ideological differences and rivalry between the parties. Just as on the Right, the party system of the 'new France' of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was being formed during the Giscard presidency, so it was that on the left, the two major parties came to terms with the requirements of contemporary politics, modernising to become acceptable and accepted players in the political system. Shaken by its inability to control or follow the events of May '68, the PC had accelerated its movement towards a normal role in politics, abandoning attachments to revolution and the need for a sole party on the left to conduct change and accepting that in the bipolar electoral system of the Fifth Republic, it had to cooperate with the PS in order to render possible the election of a left-wing candidate. The PS was similarly aware of the need to leave behind the SFIO of the Fourth Republic and the 1960s and to become a modern party with credible policies and candidates. Rivalry between the parties on the left mirrored that on the right to the extent that the traditionally dominant Communist party was declining in importance within the left block as it lost votes and seats to the rejuvenated Socialist party, and althou cooperation at elections was the only way of ensuring left wing majorities in the National Assembly or the election of a left-wing president, the Communist party found it difficult to accept an increasingly subsidiary role within the Programme Commun in particular and within left-wing collaboration in general. By 1977-78, when Giscardians and Gaullists had fallen out and redrawn their forces for the Législatives, the PS and the PC failed to 'reactualise' the Union de la Gauche as the PC demanded policies which seemed too radical for the PS and the Left Radicals and thus condemned the parties of the left to campaign in isolation. Between 1977 and 1981, when in contrast to the single candidate of 1974, PS and PC both presented challengers for the Presidency, the PC seemed to revert to earlier preoccupations, blindly supporting the USSR and denouncing an alleged rightwards drift of the Socialists Society and economics in the Giscard presidency Maurice Larkin has stated perhaps the most basic issue of Giscard's record on social and economic affairs by describing the president's 'misfortune' in having to work against the background of a world recession. It is undoubtedly true that the inflation and unemployment created by the world oil crisis in the mid-1970s added new problems to the list of problems requiring government action that Giscard had inherited from the 1960s and which he was keen to address with an ambitious series of reforms intended to answer some, if not all, of the demands of May '68. The strain on government finances imposed by recession limited Giscard's ability to reduce tensions in society through state spending, and differing views within the majorité présidentielle on the relative priorities of budgetary rigour or social intervention further split centre-left, centre-right and right. Giscard famously asserted that France would never be completely at ease with herself ('réconciliée avec elle-même') until all the old inequalities had been removed from society. Such a view was apparently at variance with his own patrician priviliged origins, and from the start, it may have seemed strange that a politician with such liberal opinions (very frequently implying the need for government spending) should have at the same time been imbued with a traditional reverence for financial stability (unlike the Socialist administration of 1981, who still believed in Keynesianism). In his celebrated exposition of his project for French society entitled Démocratie française published in 1976 Giscard listed and justified the liberal, reformist initiatives which he felt would redress the grievances of May '68 and attract the support of a wide range of political and social forces, thus creating 'ouverture' and 'décrispation' in politics and a more modern, tolerant France. What the president was aiming at was 'une sociétélibérale avancée'. Concretely, the reforms that Giscard felt were necessary covered broadcasting, the treatment of women, regionalism, the environment, and inequalities. At the start of the septennat, reforms came thick and fast, perhaps because they were the easiest to implement, perhaps because Giscard himself believed his own rhetoric that with his election 'a new era had opened in French politics', perhaps because recession had not yet diverted his attention from initiatives to change society. Between June 1974 and June 1975 the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, a Secrétariat d'Etat covering women was created and laws were passed facilitating abortion and divorce, vestiges of Gaullist control over the audiovisual media were removed with the break up of the state TV and radio corporation the ORTF, access to the Constitutional Council was democratised and moves to make secondary education more egalitarian were implemented. After such a flurry of mostly successful reformism, how was it that John Frears could state in 1980 that 'social reform was the most disappointing aspect and unfulfilled promise of the presidency', and that Edgar Faure could damn with faint praise with the perfidious suggestion that 'la réussite majeure du septennat de Valéry Giscard d'Estaing est sa lutte contre le gigantisme urbain'? The explanation is twofold: recession, and tensions within the majorité présidentielle. Recession meant that in November 1975, unemployment reached the until-then unheard-of level of one million, and thus that for the rest of the septennat the cost to government finances in terms of lowered tax income and increase transfer payments severely compromised spending on social reformism. Tensions between the UDR and Giscardians meant that the 'capital gains' tax decided in April 1976 by the Council of Ministers met such opposition from Gaullists and others on the right anxious to protect the interests of their electorates that the bill suffered progressively from significant exemptions, deferrals and amendments which destroyed its original intention as an instrument of wealth redistribution when it was finally enacted in 1979.


    France in the 1970s was a nation in transition. Politically, the institutions of 1958 were being tested in the absence of their charismatic founder, even, potentially, by alternance, in other words, the election of a left-wing president or government. The institutions survived the 'changement dans la continuité' of politics (to borrow Giscard's electoral slogan of 1974), before going on to prove the ultimate stability of the Fifth Republic in the election of François Miterrand in 1981. Socially and culturally, the demographic shift towards youth and a younger active population meant that society was becoming more open in general, less constrained by traditions of religion or social hierarchy and more and more inclined to adopt US-inspired patterns of material and cultural consumption. Economically, industry and agriculture were adapting to the demands of the more open economy of the Common Market, and firms were reorganising after the industrial intervention of de Gaulle and Pompidou to become competitive in international markets. It was Giscard's skill, or good fortune to be able to match in terms of his own youth (47 when elected) and avowed reformist principles, the aspirations of this nation in final transition from the 'old' France of the Third and Fourth Republics to the 'new' France of the last years of Fourastié's Trente glorieuses. It was Giscard's double misfortune that his presidency should be blighted both by unprecedented economic difficulties, and by a political system which was stubbornly unrceptive to the ouverture and centralist compromise that he required for his reforms to fully succeed. The 'new France' of the 1980s was economically that of the '20 Rugeuses' but was socially, culturally and politically recognisable as 'contemporary' France.

    Further Reading

    J. R. Frears, France in the Giscard Presidency (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980)

    V. Giscard d'Estaing, Démocratie francaise (Paris: Fayard, 1976)

    M. Larkin, 'Reform and Recession, 1974-1981', chapter 18 in France since the Popular Front 1936-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)