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‘Generation VGE’ owe a debt to a reformer French president



One of the stories often told in my family is that I was kissed, as a toddler, by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

“Giscard”, who died last week aged 94, allegedly blessed me with his presidential touch on June 9, 1978, when he visited my Corsican maternal village. Four years into his first term as French president the 52-year-old was touring the island where an emerging local nationalist movement was targeting the state properties and villas built by continentals on its pristine coastline with explosives. An outdoor banquet for 250 guests was held under the plane trees. My mother, a councillor, was able to chat with the president, who showed an interest in her work. She held me in her arms and the rest was history.

I never took any pride in this anecdote however. Those of us born under “VGE” did not think much of him. In the schoolyard we would mock his pompous air and imitate his slow elocution by turning the “s” into “ch” — Bonchoir Madame, Bonchoir Mademoiselle, Bonchoir Monchieur. We were more the children of his successor, François Mitterrand. One of my earliest political memories is a friend chanting “Tonton, Tonton” (Mitterrand’s nickname).

In the decades following his defeat by his Socialist opponent in 1981, Giscard stayed in the background of French political life, unappreciated. He re-emerged to draft a European constitution, only for it to be rejected by his own countrymen in a referendum in 2005. A survey in 2014 showed that while most French people had a positive opinion of the veteran politician, only 8 per cent said he had been a good president — compared with 36 per cent for Charles de Gaulle and 27 per cent for Mitterrand. (His life-long centre right rival, Jacques Chirac, fared the same.)

His death has been an unusually low key affair for a president: there was a national day of mourning on Wednesday, but for the first time under the fifth Republic, no national ceremony. He did not want any and was buried privately.

In retrospect we have been ungrateful. Giscard’s social reforms, after student-led protests of May 1968, freed French society from the shackles of Gaullism. No other president would affect our lives as he did.

Thanks to him, I was able to vote at 18, not 21. We learnt to take free contraception for granted. A law decriminalising abortion (defended in parliament by his formidable health minister Simone Veil) meant that my friend could terminate an unwanted pregnancy without risking her life. His reform reinstating divorce by mutual consent — a provision voted for during the Revolution before being removed — liberated many unhappy couples, including my own parents. Rape was criminalised during his mandate.

Another member of the VGE cohort, current president Emmanuel Macron seemed to acknowledge as much last week. He belonged to a generation that “has not always appreciated the extent to which Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had, for them, changed France,” Mr Macron said.

The forgotten legacy of VGE has been a cautionary tale for all the presidents who followed, but perhaps most for the current occupier of the Elysée Palace. Since his spectacular political ascent, Mr Macron has been dubbed the new Giscard for his youth — VGE was elected at the age of 48, Macron at 39 — and because he too ran on a centrist platform. The two graduates of Ena — the elite school for grooming technocrats — launched blitz campaigns with small liberal parties, promising to shake the old world up. Mr Macron also put the EU at the heart of his mandate.

In recent days, parallels have again been drawn between the two men. There is indeed a sense of déjà vu: at the end of his term, as France confronted mounting economic difficulties, Giscard retrenched in the Elysée. His technocratic style began to feel irksome. His centrism became tinged with centre-right conservatism.

Terror attacks prompted him to pass legislation to boost police powers that was decried by the left as curtailing civil liberties. Eventually he grew disconnected from many voters who then shunned him when he sought re-election. Sound familiar? Mr Macron might take comfort in the thought that history rarely repeats itself, or he could try to learn the lessons of the VGE era.

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Armenia’s prime minister claims military is plotting a coup




Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the country’s military is plotting a “coup,” and taken to the streets with his supporters after senior army figures in the former Soviet republic called on him to resign.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced months of protests demanding he step down after the defeat of Armenian forces in a six-week war with neighbouring Azerbaijan that ended in November.

The army weighed in on Thursday, calling on the prime minister to quit after he fired the first deputy chief of staff for criticising him.

A letter to the prime minister signed by 40 senior officers warned Pashinyan not to use force against demonstrators, but did not say whether the army would act to remove him from power.

“The current government’s ineffective management and serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the officers wrote on Facebook.

Pashinyan later fired the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, ordered police to secure government buildings in Yerevan and told his supporters in the capital’s Republic Square to avoid violent clashes.

Demonstrators at an opposition rally in Yerevan demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. They cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead © Artem Mikryukov/Reuters

Describing the situation as “manageable” the prime minister denied he was planning to flee the country and said the army’s statement was an “emotional reaction” to a dispute over the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We have no enemies in Armenia. I am calling for calm,” Pashinyan said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “Of course, the situation is tense, but we need dialogue, not confrontation.”

He later took to the streets with several thousand supporters and a megaphone — an echo of the 2018 “velvet revolution” that swept him to power following a march across the country that galvanised popular support. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered at a different square and cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead.

Pashinyan has fought off calls for his resignation since signing a Moscow-brokered peace deal in November that cemented territorial gains for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated by ethnic Armenians who seized control after a war that broke out in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country and a close ally of Turkey, launched an offensive in September with the aim of retaking the entire enclave. Armenia’s army was ill prepared for oil-rich Azerbaijan’s modern drone fleet and significant backing from Ankara.

More than 3,300 Armenian soldiers died in the conflict, with a further 9,000 wounded. Thousands of civilians were displaced, including some who set their own homes on fire as they fled land now under control of Azerbaijan.

Russia, the traditional regional power broker and Armenia’s most important ally, remained neutral even as several previous ceasefires failed and has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to secure the region.

Pashinyan admitted the terms were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but argued the concessions were necessary to prevent further losses.

The devastating defeat sparked fury among Armenians who stormed the country’s parliament and attacked its speaker, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Pashinyan backtracked on a pledge to step down after snap elections earlier this month and remained in office in the face of opposition from Armenia’s ceremonial president, three parliamentary opposition parties, and key church leaders.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was “following events in Armenia with caution” but considered them “exclusively Armenia’s internal matter”.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Russia was “calling on everyone to be calm” and said “the situation should remain within constitutional limits,” according to Interfax.

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German accounting watchdog chief to step down in wake of Wirecard




The head of Germany’s accounting watchdog is to step down following mounting political pressure over corporate governance shortcomings exposed by the Wirecard fraud.

Edgar Ernst, the president of the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel (FREP), said on Wednesday he would depart by the end of this year. He is the third head of a regulatory body to lose his job in the wake of one of Germany’s biggest postwar accounting scandals.

The collapse of Wirecard, which last summer filed for insolvency after uncovering a €1.9bn cash hole, triggered an earthquake in Germany’s financial and political establishment.

Felix Hufeld, president of BaFin, the financial regulatory authority, and his deputy Elisabeth Roegele were pushed out by the German government in January for failing to act on early red flags suggesting misconduct at Wirecard. Ralf Bose, the head of Germany’s auditors supervisor Apas, was fired after disclosing he traded Wirecard shares while this authority was investigating the company’s auditor, EY. The German government is also working to revamp the country’s accounting supervision and financial oversight.

Meanwhile, criminal prosecutors in Frankfurt are evaluating a potential criminal investigation into BaFin’s inner workings and on Wednesday asked the market authority to hand over comprehensive documents, the prosecutors office told the FT, confirming an earlier report by Handelsblatt. The potential scope of any investigation as well as the individuals who might be targeted is still unclear. BaFin declined to comment.

Ernst came under pressure as the parliamentary inquiry commission uncovered that he joined the supervisory board of German wholesaler Metro AG in an apparent violation of internal governance rules, which from 2016 banned FREP staff from taking on new supervisory board roles.

Last week, the former chief financial officer of Deutsche Post filed a legal opinion to parliament defending his move. He argued that his employment contract was older than the 2016 ban on board seats and hence trumped the tightened governance regulations.

The German government had subsequently threatened to ditch the private-sector body which currently has quasi-official powers.

In a statement published on Wednesday evening, FREP said that Ernst wants to open the door for a “fresh start” that would be untainted by the discussions around his supervisory board mandates. “FREP is losing a well-versed expert in capital markets,” the body said.

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Putin and Lukashenko’s ski fun shows cold shoulder to EU




As news of new EU sanctions against Russia began to leak out of a meeting of bloc foreign ministers on Monday afternoon, Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko were discussing a different challenge to the Russian president.

“You can try to compete with Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lukashenko, in ski gear, said to his son, Nikolai. “But you probably won’t catch up,” he added, with a smile to Putin as the Russian leader pushed off down the slope.

Putin and Lukashenko are the men behind Europe’s two repressive crackdowns over the past six months, who have both jailed or exiled their most prominent opponents and seen their security forces violently assault and detain thousands of peaceful protesters.

But in a summit in the snow-covered mountains of Sochi, on Russia’s southern coast, they revelled in their twosome of leaders shunned and sanctioned by Brussels, in a calibrated message to the EU that the cold-shoulder was mutual.

For foreign policy experts there were few details to digest, despite the complex negotiations going on behind the scenes as the two post-Soviet states seek to recalibrate their future relationship.

Putin is keen to deepen integration on Moscow’s terms. Lukashenko is desperate for Russian investment and trade co-operation but is loath to relinquish sovereignty. Yet in place of diplomatic negotiations and policy pronouncements, photographs and video footage of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company were in full display.

At the outset, Putin, in jeans and an open-collar shirt and blazer, greeted his guest with a handshake and a hug. “Even our appearance, clothes and so on, suggest that these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes,” Lukashenko quipped. “It suggests that we are close people.”

Pleasantries exchanged, it was time for the salopettes and ski boots, and a shared chairlift to the summit. Putin, pushing off confidently, set off down the gentle slope, Lukashenko in his wake.

After a short ride on snowmobiles back to their chalets, discussions continued over more than six hours — and what appeared to be three different sized wine glasses.

“The optics for the international audience is that they have been able to maintain their positions and nothing can be done against them,” said Maryia Rohava, a research fellow at Oslo university specialising in post-Soviet relations.

“Now we’re talking not just about sanctions against Belarus but also against Russia,” she added. “And it seems like they look at that like, ‘Well, we don’t care . . . We’re just enjoying our winter break like autocrats do.’”

To be sure, the fun on the slopes was not wholly without power games. Putin was clear to underscore he was the senior partner, from wrongfooting his guest at the top of the ski lift to releasing photographs of their meeting showing Lukashenko scribbling notes as his host spoke.

But the mood music was in sharp contrast to Lukashenko’s last visit to Russia in September. Then, with protests raging and the Belarusian leader’s position looking shaky, Putin reprimanded his guest for mishandling the unrest and risking the toppling of an ageing post-Soviet regime that could weaken his own.

Then, in a businesslike and cold atmosphere, Lukashenko pleaded with Putin that “a friend is in trouble” and was granted a $1.5bn loan from Moscow — but not before his host remarked that Belarusian people should be given a chance to “sort this situation out”.

The absence of such language on Monday also sent a subtle signal to other illiberal regimes, particularly those on the outer rim of Europe who, like Belarus in the past, find themselves lured towards Brussels by economic opportunities but repelled by the reforms and democratic standards demanded in exchange.

The message to the likes of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Turkey is that Putin, whose relations with the EU are at rock bottom, is always ready to talk.

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