Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of France between 1974 and 1981, has often been considered as too artistocratic. Nevertheless, I think he knows his people very well. I have just finshed his 2000 book called Les Français. Réflexions sur le déstin d’un peuple (The French. Reflections on the destiny of a nation), and it proves that this man, who is close to 90 and is still very active politically, has read a lot, thought a lot, and still can say relevant things about the French.
As far as I know, this book has no English traduction – so it might be interesting to give here a concise list about the most interesting topics that Valéry Giscard d’Estaing discusses in his work. (This is a subjective list, evidently. But still, it is very educating and I intend to offer it as a teaser, as an incentive for you to read the whole book!)
The main points Valéry Giscard d’Estaing makes
- The goal of the book is to discuss and analyze “the decline” that France faces: is it real? How does it work? How the French will have to fight it in the future? What can the French do in order to survive and thrive in the new, globalized world?
- Valéry Giscard d’Estaing notes that France has to compete under new rules: the objective surroundings of the country have changed. (This one seems to be so obvious, or even banal, but I think that Giscard knows how important this is. He understands that the Franch can no longer dictate the rules – he understands that therefore they will have to adapt to a certain extent.)
- The former French president addresses the relationship of the French with… structural reforms. He discusses why the French seem to favor a “tabula rasa” instead of a slow, gradual reform and how they want and fight reforms at the same time. In fact, the whole book is about “the French soul and ego”. From colbertism to the current economic problems of the French, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing guides us through the centuries while explaining the reasons behind things that sometimes are hard to understand. Without a solid background knowledge, that is. And he certainly has what it takes!
- The former president describes in detail his efforts as president to liberate the French economy from the burden of heavy state oversight – the funniest part of the book is when he explains his adventures with the price of the famous “cup of coffee”, which, it seems, had been also regulated by the central government.
- Giscard claims that France should name an ambitious economic goal (like closing in on Germany) and take care of its economic environment by trying to ameliorate its comparative indicators (it is kind of frightening to see that the political elite tries to address the same issue 15 years after the printing of this book!).
- Giscard discusses the attitude of the French towards work and labor. I believe that this is crucial – it is not only a moral issue, but also a very practical issue. Giscard clearly asserts that diminishing the time spent with work is not a good message in an era where work and productivity is important to succeed. He also touches the issue of equality and the reason why the French are so keen on it.
- Finally, Giscard mentions the fact that the French have a hard time to anticipate things. When it comes to intellectuals, he says that the problem of intellectuals is that they do not think enough about the future (they rather think about the past). And in a moment when a Thomas Piketty is able to set the intellectual agenda in the U.S. by talking about a possible future, the least I can say is that Giscard was right.
If you want to know the details, I highly recommend this book: details, history, sociology and culture. It’s all there, and it helps you to come closer to the reality of contemporary French politics.