Au revoir, Giscard

The main news in France this week has been the death of ex-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at the age of 94. All the obituaries, both here and in the UK, have been respectful, if a little restrained, the words ‘haughty’ and ‘aloof’ appearing regularly. Apparently Margaret Thatcher regarded him as patronising and condescending – which, frankly, seems a bit rich.

This image of d’Estaing may seem a little paradoxical considering the fact that in 1974 he became the Fifth Republic’s youngest president, an intellectually gifted politician who introduced a number of liberal reforms including reducing the voting age to 18, the introduction of divorce by common consent, and the legalisation of abortion. He also oversaw the creation of France’s high-speed TGV rail network and promoted its nuclear power strategy. Nevertheless, the image of aloofness was something he found difficult to shake off – claiming to be descended from Louis XV probably didn’t help. To boost the idea that he had the common touch, he was photographed playing football and the accordion (though never at the same time).

These were, of course, just staged for the press and nothing like the genuine displays of working-class solidarity from Tony Blair playing keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan or David Cameron eating a hot dog (with a knife and fork).

If I’m honest, my immediate reaction on hearing about Giscard’s death was surprise at the fact that he had still been alive. I’m probably not alone in that, at least amongst those of us who aren’t French. At 94 he had outlived his two immediate successors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, both of whom served two full seven-year terms. There are now only two ex-presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, both of whom served a single five-year term (the period was reduced during Chirac’s reign).

The situation is very different in the UK, where ex-prime ministers have started to accumulate at an alarming rate. There are currently five – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May – and you wouldn’t get very long odds on the current incumbent joining then fairly soon. There is a similar situation in the USA, with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama about to be joined by Donald Trump.

It’s quite interesting to look at how each of these countries treats its former leaders. When doing so, it is of course important to remember that in France and the USA the president is not just a ‘here today gone tomorrow politician’ but is also the head of state and on a par with the Queen.

In France, a former president receives a pension equivalent to that of a State Councillor, i.e. around 6,000 euros gross per month. If he decides to sit on the Constitutional Council, as he has the right to, he also receives around 11,500 euros net per month; in recent years, only Giscard has done this. They have a furnished and equipped official apartment, along with a staff of seven, including a chief of staff, assistants, and secretaries (this is reduced to three after five years). Should they wish it, two national police officers are available to them on a permanent basis for protection duties. A car is provided with two drivers (only one after five years), and they get free travel on Air France and SNCF, the French rail system. When they travel abroad, they can stay in the residences of the ambassador or the consuls.

In the USA, ex-presidents receive similar benefits. There is a lifetime annual pension of just over $200,000 a year, and the government pays for office space, furniture, staff, and supplies. They are also reimbursed for the move out of the White House and any work-related travel they do. All former presidents get lifelong Secret Service protection for themselves, their spouses, and any children under the age of 16.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different. Once a prime minster leaves office, he or she is not only out of a job but also, in theory, homeless, as 10 Downing Street has to be vacated and there is no state provision for any accommodation. They are, however, provided with an official car and driver, and they continue to have a police security guard. They are entitled to a pension of half their prime ministerial salary (which is currently just over £150,000). They can also claim a Public Duties Cost Allowance ‘to assist former Prime Ministers with the costs of continuing to fulfil duties associated with their previous position in public life’. This is worth £148,500 and is technically available for a lifetime. According to a cabinet office minister in 2016, Major was still claiming this twenty years after leaving office.

In the UK, there have been occasional calls for ex-prime ministers’ salaries to be ‘means tested’. It’s certainly true that there are plenty of opportunities for money to be made once out of office, and most of those qualified are adept at taking them. A few examples. Major was a board member of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms, and has numerous other directorships. Blair has amassed a property portfolio estimated to be worth £35 million. Cameron was paid £800,000 for his autobiography. Rather commendably, Brown tends to concentrate on advisory roles with organisations like the World Wide Web Foundation and the United Nations. His earnings from his directorship at the investment firm bank PIMCO go to the Gordon and Sarah Brown foundation for charitable works. Meanwhile, for now, May continues as an MP and can often be seen sitting on the back benches looking lovingly at Boris Johnson.

Our French ex-presidents have had mixed fortunes. François Hollande is still a member of the Parti Socialiste and has announced that, although he will not run for office, he plans to take an active part in the 2022 presidential election.

Meanwhile, poor old Nicolas Sarkozy is currently on trial in Paris for corruption. This raised a small but significant point of etiquette. On television last week, M. Sarkozy was shown on his way into the courtroom with various policemen standing at ease. By the end of the day, word had come down from Didier Lallement, the Paris chief of police: on trial or not, the man was an ex-president. As M. Sarkozy left the court, the soldiers stood stiffly to attention and saluted. I wonder if they will still do this if he is found guilty?


Three things I’ve learnt this week.

Until 1913, children in America could legally be sent by parcel post.

In the nineteenth century, before the Famine, an Irish labourer ate on average ten to fifteen pounds of potatoes a day.

In 2008, a man in Ohio was arrested for having sex with a picnic table.

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