Arrogant Frog: The Self-Delusion Of Valery Giscard d’Estaing

Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing is spending his dotage the same way he has spent the rest of his life: fantasising about his own importance. This time he wants to build a shrine to himself to preserve his “place in history.” Alas, there are no funds with which to do so.

The Times has reported this week that Giscard, 87, is selling his family’s silver, porcelain, works of art and other heirlooms — including an 18th-century marble statue by Pierre Julien — to raise funds for a museum that he intends to open in his own honour.

The looming sale is also said to include various items of memorabilia from his time in office as President of France.

The fire sale has become necessary on account of Giscard’s failure to sell a stately home he owns — for $3 million — in order to renovate another château he acquired some years ago to turn that, too, into a monument to himself.

It’s sad stuff, really, and it comes near the end of a life, and an ancestry, that seems to have been preoccupied with enhancing the publicly perceived importance of himself and his family.

Giscard’s father — clearly a craven to aristocratic aspiration — convinced government officials in 1922 that his family was in fact descended from nobility, claiming an obscure link to the aristocratic d’Estaing family; his family has been styled Giscard d’Estaing ever since.

Obviously, the aristocratic inclinations of the father were inherited by the son.

VGE — as Giscard is commonly referred to in France — has been nothing if not ambitious over the years.

It is, however, a fair comment that the great shame is that his ambitions and aspirations were pursued with far more vigour than his duties of state — certainly in later years — and that rather than leave behind the legacy of a great presidency, VGE will be remembered at home and abroad as the mediocrity he was as President.

His record of plotting and scheming in elected office dates back to the 1960s, during which he was widely regarded as being responsible for driving French war hero and President Charles de Gaulle from office; de Gaulle’s replacement as President, Georges Pompidou, died suddenly in office in 1974, and Giscard was narrowly elected President.

His term in office started out well enough, but his administration soon became unpopular; mired in scandals often with himself at the centre of them, even his fellow world leaders grew tired of him — Margaret Thatcher, for one, found his constant self-aggrandisement irritating.

And — beaten by a serial loser in Francois Mitterrand in 1981 — VGE earned the dubious distinction of both being the first French President of the modern era to fail to be re-elected, and the first to be ousted by a socialist: a unique double whammy not matched until Nicolas Sarkozy lost to Francois Hollande earlier this year.

What is it with past leaders and their determination to inflate the public record of themselves? Is this a French thing, or is it politicians in general?

The question might seem obvious, until it is remembered that VGE, having failed to sell the family château to bankroll his exercises in self-promotion — a grand stately home that has been in his family for the better part of 100 years — is now busily liquidating all of the assets of value it contains, some of them virtually priceless, to pay for this latest attempted excursion into immortality.

Such is the ridicule VGE has attracted over the years that he is largely regarded as a simple figure of fun by his countryfolk; indeed, a putative attempt to regain the presidency in 1995 died a quiet death when it was realised he was so unpopular he would struggle to attract double-digit support in the first round of France’s two-stage election process.

And these latest activities to build monuments to himself are merely the latest in a long, long line of adventures that have attracted negative publicity; one of the most notorious of these episodes involved the publication in 2009 of a novel entitled The Princess And The President, in which he seemed to suggest he had had an affair with the late Princess Diana.

Stung by the public outcry, VGE was forced to publicly state that the romance contained in the novel was purely fictitious.

Everyone knows that politicians see themselves as a cut above the rest of us; the “rulers and the ruled” mentality, and VGE — with his adopted family history of aristocracy and clear delusions of grandeur — apparently seeks to prove it.

What do readers think? Should former leaders go gently and softly into the night, or is there a case for eulogising them in the way Valery Giscard d’Estaing seeks to do for himself?