News reports on 94-year-old Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s death routinely described France’s former president as “the country’s youngest head of state when elected in 1974”.
D’Estaing was 48 when he assumed the presidency. In May 2017, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron beat d’Estaing’s record. That particular one, anyway.
The jury is still out on whether Mr Macron will reach the avant garde heights of the rest of d’Estaing’s record.
The former president was, as every obit recounted, instrumental in liberalising French attitudes towards divorce and abortion. He was ahead of his time (or perhaps in step with his times) when he decriminalized abortion in 1975 and created a minister for women’s conditions.
By lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, d’Estaing revealed a deep (and at the time, unusual) belief in the power of young people to dream and do and to change the world.
Despite his elite background, d’Estaing tried to reach out to what we would today call the “forgotten people”. He famously invited garbage collectors to the Élysée Palace for a chat in an attempt to understand the needs of the people.
And finally, d’Estaing worked with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt to convene the first summit of the world’s six leading industrial economies in 1975. Hosted at the Chateau de Rambouillet in France, it produced the Declaration of Rambouillet, which committed the leaders to an annual meeting of what would became the G7.
As a europhile and true believer in continent-wide peace and cooperation, he was one of the architects of the first European monetary system and direct elections for the European Parliament in 1979.
It’s a pretty impressive list, one that any French president (or any leader, anywhere, for that matter) would surely be proud to have in their column.
Will Mr Macron rise to these heights in his presidency? As his overtaking of d’Estaing as France’s youngest president shows, youth is no permanent guarantee of a place in the history books. Tomorrow, someone younger – by a decade, a year or a day – may be elected president and the record falls.
History remembers leaders for the real and lasting results they achieve for the greater common good. How well is Mr Macron doing on that score?
Well, he is currently trying to outflank France’s far right with efforts to “reform” the practice of Islam within his country. In the process, he seems to be managing to annoy liberals of every stripe while also triggering outrage from some Muslims (within France and beyond). It’s not clear what, if anything, these initiatives will accomplish.
Mr Macron is also in favour of a tougher European approach to its own security. However, he seems not to have offered the kind of initiatives that everyone can get behind.
Perhaps Mr Macron’s vision is not as clear as one might hope for at this point in his presidency. Then again, he may yet surprise us – and himself? – and book a real and lasting place in history.