Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was, until recently, just a remarkably active retiree. He wrote a novel in 1994 that sank with little notice, he labored as part of France’s prestigious Académie française, and his high-profile role in drafting a version of the European Union Constitution might have capped his remarkable technocratic career—if his compatriots hadn’t rejected it at the ballot box.
And yet this week the 83-year-old chateau-dweller is the talk of Paris and London thanks to his second novel, which is slated for release in France on October 1. Titled La Princesse et le Président ( The Princess and the President), it is centered on a torrid tryst between a French president and an unhappily married British royal in the 1980s. When the French daily Le Figaro obtained an exclusive copy of the novel,and published excerpts, the chattering classes of Britain and France were aflutter with speculation: is Giscard’s work well-informed fiction, or could it be a fundamentally true story gussied up with a few convenient fictional alterations?
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The novel is narrated by a sitting French president, Jacques-Henri Lambertye, who recounts his first meeting with vibrant young Lady Patricia of Cardiff. The princess is “very pretty, always in the media and unhappy at home.” And Cardiff is, the narrator notes, located in Wales.
The love-struck president, returning to the Élysée presidential palace, describes “my head on fire, and my heart sparkling with happiness.”
Their first encounter begins innocuously enough: the president and the princess meet during the closing dinner of a G-7 summit at Buckingham Palace. Almost immediately, there are hints of intimacy. The troubled princess confides to the middle-aged president: “I am going to tell you what happened to me. About ten days before my wedding, my future husband came to tell me he had a mistress and that he had decided to carry on with the relationship after our wedding.”
At one point the narrator-president notes that he moved his chair to make space for the princess to sit and “she thanked me with one of her oblique glances that allowed me to feel all of her charm.” (In case you hadn’t figured it out, Giscard favors the romance genre of novel writing.)
Later, when the president and the princes ride a train back from a D-Day commemoration in Normandy, he kisses her hand. “She gave me a quizzical look,” recounts the president, “her slate-grey eyes widening as she tilted her head gently forward.”
Before long, passions come to a boil for them on both sides of the English Channel. The president details or hints at sexcapades in illustrious provincial homes and various French chateaus, including one where former President François Mitterrand is believed to have received his long-time mistress, and another one where Giscard staged presidential hunting sessions. Those sessions, incidentally, seem to have inspired Giscard’s description of the seductions. “The ritual of the hunt was always the same.” There were also trysts at Kensington Palace—where Lady Diana Spencer lived after divorcing Prince Charles. At one point, the love-struck president, returning to the Élysée presidential palace, describes “my head on fire, and my heart sparkling with happiness.”
An array of French and British journalists are asking whether Giscard and Lady Di might somehow have outsmarted paparazzi, spies and aides to conceal a fling for a quarter of a century. After all, recent French presidents have pulled off some pretty stunning philandering. It was only at former President Mitterrand’s funeral that most French people realized he had had a second family. President Chirac’s wife used to ask his driver where he was “sleeping,” and Chirac, who is in his late ‘70s, was recently filmed engaging in some dynamic flirting with a woman about half his age, while his wife gave a speech a few feet away. And while many English journalists can’t fathom the thought of their precious young Lady Di being attracted to a man 35 years her senior with a bald head dotted with age spots, some are equally unable to understand how diminutive President Sarkozy managed to woo and marry willowy supermodel-turned-pop star Carla Bruni in a matter of months. With French presidents, you just never know.
In the excerpts published thus far, Lady Patricia of Cardiff is an attractive young woman who, amid the media glare and plenty of personal hardships, finds a constructive outlet in raising awareness about landmine victims and AIDS. The real Lady Di sat next to Giscard at a 1994 children’s fundraiser at the Opera Gabriel in Versailles, where he smiled broadly at the princess in her evening gown. (His wife, the mother of his five children, spoke at that event.) Diana had been divorced for two years at the time of this influential encounter, and the following year, Giscard gushingly described it to a French magazine : "She leaned her head forward and lifted those immense blue eyes. That is the moment when you discover she is also a cat, a feline. She moves without noise."
On the other hand, key elements in the novel are clearly pure fiction. The book’s president—who seems to bear a striking resemblance to Giscard, albeit spiced with elements of Presidents Mitterrand and Chirac—is easily re-elected in 1981, just months before the princess’ high-profile marriage. In reality, Giscard barely lost his re-election bid and so he was not president when Diana became a princess. ( The Princess and the Ex-President just doesn’t have the same ring.) Other fictional elements apparently involve an attempt on the president’s life, and a plane crash that kills the adulterous prince and the queen mother, leaving the princess’ son to ascend to the throne.
Giscard, who was reportedly among the first people to send red roses to the hospital where Diana was taken in Paris after her car crash in 1997, writes nostalgically in his novel. “I can still hear her say in English. It isn’t the memory that reminds me, it is her voice: ‘I wish that you love me.’” As you can see, his memories of English, like all of his romantic memories, perhaps, are imperfect.
At one point in the book Lady Patricia of Cardiff says, “You asked me for authorization to write the story. I grant it to you, but you must make me a promise…” Was it a promise to recount their love story as fiction? No answer is given, and the British press just can't bring itself to believe it could be true, while the French seem slightly more open to the idea. But the presidential narrator—and perhaps Giscard himself—reply in the epigraph: “Promise kept.”
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl . He is based in Paris.