Valéry Giscard d’Estaing: his ‘personal’ American photographer reflects

When former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing died from covid-related respiratory issues in early December, 2020,, American photographer Dave Burnett immediately wrote the following reminiscence. As a photographer, Burnett had developed a unique relationship with this unusual and often aloof French politician.

The microphones at a presidential debate in 1973 with the French radio station RTL. (Photo: David Burnett)

All photos ©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, or VGE as he was known, served as president of France from 1974 to 1981, just as oil shock and inflation were  buffeting the West.

I had been working for GAMMA, the French photo agency, for about a year. LIFE magazine, where I had hoped to be hired as a staff photographer, had just folded and that year with GAMMA was both productive and amazing. It was at a time when magazines, with the exception of LIFE, were still thriving and the word “internet” referred only to a limited Pentagon communications system.

We lived for magazines, the big American weeklies such as TIME and Newsweek, but also the French ones, notably Paris Match, l’Express, le Point, Journal de Dimanche… Across  Europe, hundreds of pages of other leading publications needed to be filled every week: STERN, Bunte, Spiegel, Epoca...They had pages, and budgets, and each competed every week to be better than the rest.

I had heard about then French president Georges Pompidou’s death (on 2 April 1974) while on a trip across the Sahel in central Africa. I had been following the drought, and its effect in on small, desertified villages. In Niamey, the capital of Niger, I boarded an Air Afrique plane to Paris. Those were still the days in which Coach was not yet treated like a leper colony. In the front cabin was Diori Hamani, the ruler of Niger, who was going for the funeral.

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Somehow, I missed Pompidou’s funeral, but Hamani made it. I have never quite figured that one out. The French, ever practical, had already started the process of determining their next leader. Giscard jumped into the race, as did Francois Mitterrand, the head of France’s socialist party. A few others also joined in. They were known mainly by their last names, all representing different political parties from the right-wingers to the communists: Chaban-Delmas, Marchais, LePen.

Giscard at a dinner, watching Chaban-Delmas on the television. (Photo: ©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

A very civil affair: a new president in weeks

The intelligent way they handled the election would never be duplicated in the U.S. Only two weeks were devoted to the Primary (première tour) then another two more weeks were allotted for the top two candidates to campaign(deuxième tour) and on 19 May, 1974, there was a new President. No campaigning for months or years (or four years!), and no provision for buying unlimited TV air time.

It was all handled in a very civil way. Several debates, some “meetings” and then the vote. GAMMA had already established connections to VGE and his campaign. It was a novelty to suggest that coverage of the campaign be handled by an americain, and that may be why they accepted. I became the “personal photographer” to the candidate. Somewhere under my bed in a 40+ year old box is a personal note from VGE, establishing me as someone to be given full access, anywhere he went.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at a meeting during lthe 1974 presidential campaign. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)
Presidential candidate Valèry Giscard d’Estaing and his family campaigning: (left to right) son Louis, wife Anne-Aymone, son Henri, daughters Valerie-Anne and Jacinte, Bois de Boulogne, Paris, France, April 1974. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)
Watching the election results. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

And yes, there were moments in the middle of screaming, raucous crowds, that I had to pull out my wrinkled piece of paper, and show it to someone before getting through a rope line. Over the years during his seven-year presidential period I visited the Elysee Palace often. For a while, the huissiers (porter/butlers) who looked after the place, even knew me.

Giscard’s Presidency is remembered today for having tried to push France (and the European Commission) through the difficulties of the ’73 Oil Shock, and the nuclearization of French power plants. But what I remember most, and give him great credit for, is seeing that Telecom— France’s entry into the 20th century world of the modern telephone– needed to be brought up to date.

Giscard with his dog at the Elysee Palace. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

Terror of the ‘caisse’ madames

In France until the mid-late 70s, if you were at a cafe having a drink, and you wanted to call a friend to join you, the act of sending a message was archaic at best. The pay phone was invariably near the downstairs toilets (you usually could sniff your way there) but you couldnt just pick up a phone and call. First you had to ask Madame at “la caisse” (in those days all French cafes worthy of their salt had a Madame running the cash register, the cigarettes, post office stamps and the jetons for the phone), if she would both sell you a jeton (a small token coin made just for telephones), and ‘brancher la ligne…’ meaning to flip the switch for the phone ON.

The usual retort was “pour Paris?” (for Paris?) as if you might want to call your old pal in Singapore or Santiago, instead of a simply trying to reach a small garrot apartment in the 6th arrondissement. You put the jeton into the phone, then dialed, but only pushed the ACTIVATE (meaning the jeton would drop into the coin box) once someone answered.

If you pushed it without anyone picking up, you lost your jeton. The penalty was severe. In the case of no one answering, you had to approach Madame again, and ask her once more to turn the phone on. You had to have nerves of steel.

During VGE’s seven years, coin phones from which you could call the world began to line the streets. The dictatorship of the caisse ladies was slowly eroded, as the new coin boxes sprang up. We were watching communications grow in an unbridled way. At Ronald Reagan’s funeral in 2004, I ran into Giscard (David Kennerly shot this, thanks DHK) and we talked briefly.

VGE working. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

VGE: a great subject

Giscard d’Estaing spent nearly forty years being an ex-President. It’s pretty hard to find something that tops being the top, unless, like Jimmy Carter, you like building houses for people who don’t have them. But VGE was a great subject, and because my French was so lousy during that first campaign, I was not considered a security risk. I was able to attend almost every meeting. (See some of Dave Burnett’s coverage)

I remember the day we were in the small charter jet, off to events in the south, and as I sat in my chair, fumbling with my M4/35, he looked at me, and said with his very professorial tone: “Today, we are going to LION.” he announced, emphasizing what he thought was the English pronuncitation of the French city of Lyon. Frankly I was just happy to be on the plane…

French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at his Elysee Palace office. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

In 1981, when he was up for re-election, in the small village where he had a country place, he walked into the village to vote on that Sunday morning. A dozen or more photographers and several TV cameras lit the room up. As he dropped his ballot into the box, the voting marshall announced: “Valery Giscard d’Estaing a voté!!” With his solitary security officer, he walked out of the polling station, heading to his house, a 20-minute walk away.

After a few pictures of his departure, the press left him alone. He walked, tall and very alone, out the main street of the village. I paused for a minute as the photogs took their last few pictures, then walked quickly after him, catching up after a minute or so. “Mr President, if I may…” I started. He slowed enough to turn and see me, and we went on walking.

Former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing . (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

I continued. “As someone who covers the American Presidents, I just want you to know what a special and wonderful situation you have here. In Washington, the President would be surrounded by dozens of Secret Service, cars and limousines, and there would be police everywhere. You have a very special, and quite wonderful ability to be able to just walk by yourself here – and I know you appreciate it. As someone used to the American way, I just want you to know how great this is.” He nodded briefly. I stopped and he kept walking back to his house. That night Francois Mitterrand was elected to the first of his two terms as President de la Republique.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing , photographed in his garden at his home on Rue de Benouville. Paris, November 2008. This was the last time that photographer David Burnett saw the former French president. (©2020 David Burnett/Contact Press Images)

David Burnett is a photojournalist with more than five decades of work covering news, people, and the visual tempo of our age. He is co-founder of Contact Press Images,the New York based photojournalism agency, now entering its 42nd year. In a recent issue of American Photo magazine Burnett was named one of the “100 Most Important People in Photography.” In the spring of 2018, David was awarded the Sprague Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Press Photographers Association. Burnett is also founder of Photographers for Hope. (See Global Geneva article by Anna Wang). 

Dave Burnett

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