Valéry Giscard D'Estaing was the third president of the French Vth Republic. After the death, and afterwards national funeral, of the next president, François Mitterrand, the running joke was, "We didn't do as much for Giscard". Valéry is still alive, yet hardly noticed by most of France, and, indeed, seldom remembered as President.
The son of a high-ranking member of the French administration, Giscard was born on February the 2nd, 1926, in Coblence, Germany. His destiny was to be involved in politics : two members of his family had been member of the Sénat, one of them even being in the Cabinet. In 1944 he passed the competitive exam to the Ecole Polytechnique, yet entered it only one year later, as he joined the French army during the liberation of France. One of the best students of the prestigious engineering school, he was admitted to the Ecole Nationale Administration, the breeding ground of French technocracy.
As soon as he graduated, he starting working for Edgar Faure, one of the prominent politicians of the dying IVth Republic. In 1956 he was elected to the Assemblée Nationale. The beginnings of the Vth Republic were also his start in the Cabinet of Charles de Gaulle, at first as State Secretary in charge of the budget, and after 1962 as finances minister, all quite important roles for such a young man. From 1966 to the end of De Gaulle's presidency, he was again only a simple deputy. He founded the conservative Centre National des Indépendants Républicains, a center-right party that would gather the non-gaullist right wing. However, he was soon back into the cabinet after the election of Georges Pompidou.
In 1974, campaigning as a young candidate for a dynamic country, he was elected President after the death of Pompidou. He beat the gaullist candidate Jacques Chaban-Delmas in the first round, mostly thanks to the support of gaullist Jacques Chirac, and won the second round by a narrow margin against the candidate of the unified left, François Mitterrand. His campaign is masterfully told by Raymond Depardon's documentary, 1974, Journal d'une Campagne. He used American promotional methods, ahead of the slow movement of French politics.
As a president he would do all that he could to appear modern. He would share a garbage man's breakfast, invite himself to some random people's dinner. He would play the accordion on prime time national television. And indeed some of his reforms modernized the country, like the legalization of abortion, or the lowering of majority age to 18. He also pushed for a stronger European Union, often discussing its construction with the German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. However he could not free himself from his technocratic image ; this wasn't helped by a scandal involving the gift of diamonds from the African tyrant Bokassa.
The seven years of his presidency, from 1974 to 1981, weren't very nice economically either ; unemployment was reappearing for the first time since the war, inflation kept rising. Despite changing his Prime Minister in 1976, from Jacques Chirac to Raymond Barre, and keeping the majority in the Assemblée Nationale in 1978, Giscard lost the Presidential Elections in 1981 - the first elections won by the left since 1958. This was partly caused by Chirac's candidacy.
The first, and up to now only, President not reelected by the popular vote, Giscard made an impressive exit, live on TV. He made his resignation speech live on television, sitting on his presidential desk ; at its end, he simply said "Au revoir" and left through a visible door, the now empty room being still shot by the television cameras.
From then on, Giscard would be a man who had reached the apex of his life too soon. The other presidents died either during their presidency or soon after its end ; being a former president is not traditional in France. He remains a member of the Assemblée Nationale, and presides over a few local assemblies. He also leads the Convention for the future of Europe since 2002, and he may have been presumptuous while requesting his compensation - his esteem of himself is apparently higher than what other Europeans hold of him, and his demands for a high salary, a car with a driver and other things were not accepted.