WASHINGTON – Louis Giscard d’Estaing, a former two-term deputy representing Puy-de-Dome in the National Assembly, mayor of Chamalieres and son of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing kicked off his latest campaign Tuesday afternoon — in Bethesda, Maryland.
Flanked by two 20-year-old campaign volunteers in European knotted scarves and sharp suits, Giscard, the newly declared candidate to represent French expatriates in North America, stepped out of a black SUV at the Lyce Rochambeau French International School off Beach Drive. He had sunglasses tucked in the breast pocket of his checked blue suit, black tufts fringing his bald dome and campaign talking points ready for the political power broker in the headmistress’s office.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if it really works out,” he said with an accent and a shrug.
France last year joined Italy, Angola, Cape Verde, the Dominican Republic and about a dozen other nations in allowing representation without habitation. The 54-year-old political scion is running for one of the 11 parliamentary seats (out of 577) that were created last year to represent French citizens in foreign districts, each drawn to include about 150,000 voters. The North American constituency includes Canada and the United States. Great Britain is so full of Frenchmen that it warrants its own district. By contrast, one deputy will represent all of Asia, Russia and Australia.
America is far from foreign to Giscard. His late wife was American, he speaks fluent English and he has a son with dual citizenship. Nevertheless, the strangeness of campaigning in a strange land is not lost on him.
“It’s outside France,” it is a special election, “and the community is scattered over a huge territory in two countries,” he said. “It’s different.”
Campaigning stateside is also something, he said, that he had not foreseen. Last year, he became the first Giscard to lose an election in the region of Auvergne since 1946
But then he caught a break. Last month, the Constitutional Council of France, upon which his father sits, unseated the North American district’s first representative, Corinne Narassiguin, a Socialist and 13-year-resident of New York, for improperly opening campaign bank accounts in the United States. It also barred her from public office for one year. The ruling opened an opportunity for Giscard, who said he started receiving emails from French members of the Union for a Popular Movement Party in North America imploring him to run.
Giscard had left the party after the disastrous rightward lurch of its leader, President Nicholas Sarkozy. He helped found a new party and will now challenge Frederic Lefebvre, a former junior minister and Sarkozy ally, of whom Giscard does not think highly.
Last week, Giscard visited Montreal — which, after New York, has the highest concentration of French citizens in North America — to test whether he had sufficient support. He squeezed in a campaign swing through Washington to woo the area’s 9,000 voters, who will probably cast ballots in May.
Walking behind his two skinny-tied volunteers, he opened a door at the Lyce reading “escaliers” and climbed the stairs to the headmistress’s office. He sat at the head of a table under an abstract map of the United States. Catherine Lvy-Silveira opened a note pad filled with graph paper.
“You know the context for which I’m here,” he said. “I’m the future candidate.”
He spoke about how well he had come to know America in his capacity as a marketing executive for Moet Hennessy in New York in the 1980s. They discussed education policy and struck up a promising conversation about Saint-Nectaire cheese from the Auvergne region, which he represented and where she had worked.
“Right in the middle of France,” he said.
“Right in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
On the way out of the building he previewed his campaign pitch, complete with a printout that began, “America, innately, is my second home.” He recalled how, at age 17, the year of the American bicentennial, his parents sent him to the United States to spend the summer with Bruce Sundlun, later the governor of Rhode Island. He visited the White House and had a chat in the Oval Office with President Gerald Ford. He talked about his wife’s upbringing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his family summered, and their flight back from Dulles Airport to Paris in August 2011, a month before her death from cancer, and her funeral at the American Cathedral in Paris. He spoke of his 13-year-old son’s dual citizenship and the boy’s fondness for “historical sites — Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Yorktown.”
His phone rang. Jean-Louis Borloo, head of Giscard’s new party, was checking on his progress from France. Giscard said he would be heading back to Canada the following week.
A few hours later, Giscard’s entourage arrived at Georgetown’s Avenue Suites hotel, where they held a meet-and-greet with French voters. The candidate leaned in to talk with Nicole Hirsh, a grande dame of the French expat community, who wore a gold necklace and tailored blazer. She had flown up from Florida for the event and was staying at the Cosmos Club.
The party paraded down a hallway and into a brightly lighted meeting room where Giscard stood at the head of a table.
Surrounded by 25 potential supporters, Hirsh introduced Giscard by calling his unexpected bid “une chance unique.” The candidate launched his pitch, referencing his White House visits, his personal and professional experience in America and his leadership of Parliament’s French-American caucus.
As Giscard and some supporters later prepared to hit the French bistro inside a nearby hotel, Flavius Mihaies, a World Bank staffer who had grilled Giscard on political and economic questions, liked what he saw. “He comes from a dynasty,” he said, “and that brings prestige and attention and is flattering for the French expats.”