The New Statesman Profile - Valery Giscard d'Estaing

He sees himself as Europe's George Washington, who can at last enjoy the grandeur he has sought for

Europe has found its maker. What luck that a statesman of such unquestioned brilliance and experience has come forward to shape our destiny. What luck, too, for the said statesman that the European Union is there to satisfy his desire to be grand. On 28 February, when the "convention" charged with turning Europe into something approaching one nation held its inaugural session, the imperious figure at its head was France's Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Yes, Giscard is back, and back where he believes he belongs: running things that may change the world.

Giscard, straight as a Doric pillar at 76, will find the term "convention" to his liking. Wasn't it a convention that turned the American states into the United States of America? It would be a surprise if George Washington, who at a venerable age ran that remarkable show in Philadelphia, were far from Giscard's mind at the moment. Deciding Europe's future - how tight or loose a federation it is to be - seems a job made to requite France's conservative ex-president. He has hitherto found nothing that quite measures up to his status since he left the Elysee Palace in high dudgeon 21 years ago, having lost his bid for re-election. He stars, it is true, in a film currently showing in artier French cinemas: an intimate, on-the-stump record of the campaign that won him the presidency in 1974. He financed the film himself, but has only now sold the distribution rights, perhaps aware that all the fine scheming and coquetry made him look more than a little pleased with himself. Maintaining rank has long been a problem. For a time, he talked about Europe needing a president (guess who he had in mind?) but that has come to nothing, so far.

None of which need detract from his mastery of the subject he now has in hand. Giscard probably knows the ins and outs of Europe better than any statesman alive. What is more, he is grand by nature. From a height of well over six feet, he looks down through hooded patrician eyes on any other leader around. He appears so grand that the thought of him presiding over the EU convention was initially greeted with broad hostility in EU working circles. He was French arrogance personified, it was said. He never listened to others. How could a man of his age bring a modern spirit to the enterprise?

Furthermore, word had spread in recent weeks that he was demanding a grand salary, equivalent to that received by the president of the European Commission, Europe's top official, plus grand premises in Brussels. The resulting stink led to a decision by the 15 EU member countries to make the post honorary, as they had envisioned it from the outset. (Giscard calls the whole story grotesque - for who, he asks, would seek such a post for the money? He merely sought a consideration "appropriate" to his rank.) He will receive a daily allowance of 1,000 euros for the 11 or so days a month he is expected to spend in Brussels, away from his mansion in Paris.

It is difficult to love Giscard, and indeed few manage to overcome the difficulty. Not Jacques Chirac, France's current president. He and Giscard, although both are conservatives, are enemies of long standing. Contempt and jealousy hold them apart. But when Giscard put out feelers for the convention job, Chirac was delighted to indulge him. Chirac, a serial candidate, seeks re-election in the French presidential contest in April and May. Anything, he will have thought, rather than have Giscard around queering his pitch during what looks like an uphill campaign. Chirac had been irritated by his old rival's posturing as a possible contender. As late as last autumn, Giscard was saying: "I do not rule myself out." Declared candidates on the French right, he observed royally, lacked presidential credibility.

So Chirac leant on Tony Blair and Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany to ensure that Giscard landed the convention. Under Giscard's guiding hand, it has 105 members: 66 representatives from the current 15 member governments, from national parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission, in addition to 39 non-voting members from a dozen eastern European and other countries now pressing to join the EU. Its formal task is to "propose" reforms that will unblock the present union, to get it working as one and to ensure that it keeps working when the newcomers are in. Giscard will no doubt be tempted to do more than simply propose. Expect a draft constitution for a 21st-century Europe from his labours.

He believes Blair is on side. By way of proof, he cites Blair's recent speech damning Britain's negative, stand-offish attitude towards Europe over the past quarter-century. "My feeling is," said Giscard, having called in at Downing Street to test the ground, "that Tony Blair is disposed towards positive reflection."

Even Giscard's enemies will admit that he seems more capable than most of innovating on Europe. His record is impressive. Back in the 1970s, when he was president of France and he struck up a fruitful relationship with Germany's Helmut Schmidt, he was behind three momentous moves: creating the European Council of heads of government, at which all important decisions have since been made; having the European Parliament elected directly; and establishing the monetary union that has produced the euro - the most visible of all advances in European unity.

That is the French grandee's strong suit. He moved into position to deliver such master strokes exceptionally early in his career, swept on by an intellect that left his peers agape. He hails from the French provincial gentry, from a family of Auvergne notables that rather recently purchased the noble-sounding d'Estaing title to add lustre to the plainer Giscard. The Auvergne is France's central heartland, close to the soil, close with its money and sure of itself.

Giscard was elected to parliament at the age of 30, having creamed through the country's top two higher education establishments, the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. Go to just one of these schools and you join France's ruling class. Giscard came out at its very summit, a state inspector of finances. He is the symbol of a postwar elite that has run into endless criticism for its highly centralised, imperious management techniques, but has none the less kept France moving on with some success. Giscard's part in this dates back to the 1950s.

Even Charles de Gaulle needed his brainpower, although he found him difficult and never much liked him (he called Giscard his "cactus"). Once de Gaulle had appointed him secretary of state for finance at the age of 36, Giscard seemed irreplaceable. He held the senior cabinet post right through the 1960s, using his renown when the chance came in 1974 to stand for president of France, and win.

Mind you, brilliance isn't everything. There is often something more than faintly ridiculous about Giscard. It isn't just the funny stuff he got up to as president, when he blurred his conservatism and governed from the centre. In a campaign to soften his reputation as a cold brainbox, he tried going "warm": he played the accordion on television, wore tatty sweaters, and invited Paris dustmen in off the street for breakfast at the Elysee Palace (the expensive truffles he served with the eggs rather spoilt his game). As an innovator, he came up with some dandy ideas - changing the hallowed Champs-Elysees route of France's Bastille Day parade, and altering the rhythm of the Marseillaise. When he lost the presidency, he put on a final toe-curler. His arch adieu to the French people had him seated on a throne-like chair in the middle of a gilded salon, saying a few words about his proud record in government, then slowly rising and departing as the TV cameras held on the empty chair.

Giscard still blames his 1974 defeat on an exotic scandal that blew up over his relationship with an African tyrant, Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Giscard could not resist invitations from this former French army sergeant to join big-game hunts in the Central African Empire, a land his host personally upgraded from a republic so as to become emperor. In retrospect, it was less than far-sighted of a sitting French president to have hunted elephants with such a man; Bokassa was later tried and convicted of all sorts of bestial acts - shooting noisy schoolchildren, for example. Alas, at the time, Giscard also failed to resist another favour Bokassa bestowed on him: a set of diamonds. Because he omitted to declare them as an official gift, the popular conclusion was that he had kept them for himself. Giscard has always felt he was unfairly victimised by a prying press at a critical moment in his political career.

To his credit, he soon scrapped that empty throne scene, and has instead kept in the political hunt - at the regrettably modest level imposed on him - fixing his sights on Europe and addressing his latest thoughts in his gloriously plummy accent to the French and European parliaments, in both of which he has sat. Lately, he led the way in getting the French president's elective term reduced from a wearying seven years to five. From what he is now saying in public, it seems pretty clear where the convention will not be taking Europe. Again, Blair would not be unhappy. Giscard dislikes the much- canvassed idea of a "two-speed" Europe with a "hard core", to make decision-making easier: "You can't start from the idea that there are good members and the not so good." What he prefers is the approach that launched the euro, one where everyone agrees on a plan but not everyone is obliged to take part.

And from what he is saying in private, he believes that political union, including foreign and defence policy, should take precedence over the economic and fiscal union that has been raising the guard of people (such as Gordon Brown) who baulk at the taxation and spending implications of a single economic policy. Furthermore, he feels, executive power should essentially stay with heads of government, not rest in the European Commission.

Giscard has a year to steer the convention to its conclusions on the shape of the federation, reporting on progress every so often to heads of government. He envisages a Europe that is "simple, accessible and able to make people dream". That scarcely sounds like Giscard, more like a certain George Washington. If a president of Europe were by any chance to emerge from the proposals of this convention, it would be a brave soul who tried to stop Giscard going for it.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals