Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president and a preeminent architect of the European Union, died Wednesday night at the age of 94 due to COVID-19, his foundation said.
Giscard, often referred to simply as VGE, died in his family home in Loir-et-Cher, France, after his health had deteriorated, the Fondation Valéry Giscard d’Estaing said in a tweet.
A leading figure of the French center-right, VGE led France from 1974, when he defeated François Mitterrand, until 1981, when Mitterrand won the presidency. He was known for his reformist tenure, distancing itself from Charles de Gaulle’s legacy on the right. His government legalized abortion and divorce by mutual consent, and lowered the voting age to 18, and his 1974 constitutional reform gave parliamentary minorities the right to challenge the constitutionality of a law.
VGE was also a firm believer in Europe and key proponent of European integration in the 1970s, together with close ally Helmut Schmidt, the former chancellor of West Germany. VGE proposed the creation of the European Council in 1974 to formalize meetings between European heads of state. He inaugurated Strasbourg’s Palace of Europe a year after the 1976 Electoral Act was passed, which led to the first European direct elections in 1979. VGE also co-created with Schmidt the European Monetary System, a regime of fixed but adjustable exchange rates between European currencies, between 1978 and 1979.
Later he was elected to the European Parliament, serving from 1989 to 1993.
Throughout his career, VGE served at every level of French politics, including as mayor, minister, president of the Auvergne region amd member of the Constitutional Council. In 2003, he joined the Académie Française, the prestigious council on the French language, whose members are known as the “immortals.”
Among younger generations, VGE is also known for his concession speech after his defeat to Mitterrand, saying “Au revoir” to the French people before theatrically leaving his desk.
More recently, Giscard d’Estaing was facing accusations of sexual assault from German journalist Ann-Kathrin Stracke. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation last May after Stracke filed a complaint saying the former president touched her on the backside three times during a 2018 interview.
French President Emmanuel Macron saluted the life of “this immense servitor of the State” and “man of progress and liberty” in a Thursday morning statement from the Élysée. “The orientations he gave to France still guide our steps,” the statement said, tracing his history-spanning biography from taking up arms for the liberation of Paris in 1944 to his push for a European constitution in the early 2000s.
Sarkozy said in a Twitter post that Giscard had “worked his whole life to reinforce the bonds between European nations, sought and achieved the modernization of political life, and dedicated his great intelligence to analyzing the most complex international issues.”
François Hollande wrote, “We are losing a statesman who made the choice of opening to the world and thought Europe was the condition for France to be greater.”
Both chambers of the French parliament, which were in session Wednesday night, held a minute of silence to honor VGE.
“For Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Europe had to be a French ambition, and France a modern nation. Respect,” tweeted the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who belongs to the same political family as VGE.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “With the passing of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France loses a statesman, Germany a friend, and all of us a great European.”
Pierre-Paul Bermingham contributed reporting.
This article has been updated.