Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing discusses the European Union.
A French President Comes to Town
By Carol Joynt

Last week, on the eve of the July 4th holiday, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont defied the notion that little of interest happens in Washington this time of year and hosted a dinner party for former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The tall, elegant and, at 82, apparently ageless former head of state came to town solely for the occasion. He was France’s 20th president, and served through a transitional global political era that spanned the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, framed by sunlight.
The evening began with a brief talk from the guest of honor, the first in a series of lectures Ambassador Vimont will host over the next several months. The 50 guests gathered in the Ambassador’s red-trimmed main reception room. Giscard, in a charcoal suit, white shirt and tie, sat in the front of the room at a table covered with a cloth and two microphones, and his watch, which he’d removed set down beside his notes.

Late evening sun served as a soft backlight. The subject was the European Union, but there was an unspoken and unmistakable happy awareness of events unfolding in Colombia, where earlier that day French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans were daringly rescued from their rebel captors.

While diplomatically mum on the rescue, Giscard had plenty to say about relations between the 27 nations in the European Union, a marriage in which he has been both professionally and passionately involved. In particular, what he views as the impatience of the West. “History is written in ten and thirteen years, not in one year,” he said. “The Chinese, who are smarter than we are, understand this. They say, ‘give us 20 or 30 years’” to see what history says about current events. “But we are not like that. We want history written by the next holiday.”
The audience included diplomats, White House and State Department officials, columnists and “think tankers,” as we call them here, and some “friends” of the embassy. For example, Tobin Bradley and Gordon Johndroe from the Administration; Ambassadors Nigel Sheinwald of the UK, Joao de Vallera of Portugal, Petr Kolar of the Czech Republic, and John Bruton of the European Commission; former Carter adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; syndicated columnist James Hoagland and Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus.

There were questions after the lecture, with almost all of them so multi-tiered and obtuse that Giscard asked Vimont for interpretation, which he affably provided. Hoagland’s, about French-German integration, was the only question Giscard answered promptly without the need for clarification.
Invited guests listen to the lecture by the former French president.
Syndicated columnist James Hoagland takes notes.
Ambassador Vimont, standing by ...
... and leaning in to interpret a "think tankers" long and complicated question.
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Guests find their places at the five round tables.
When the questions concluded, Giscard brightened. Perhaps it was the anticipation of dinner. We moved from one end of the residence to the other, where five tables of ten were arranged in the handsome dining room with its dark green wood-paneled walls and chairs covered in apricot silk. The tables were set with white Porthault linen and Christofle flatware, candlelight, and bowls of colorful summer flowers. The menu was Crabe au Celeri Rave et Gelee de Pommes Vertes with a 2006 Saint Veran; Filet d’Agneau Roti aux Morilles et Puree de Petits Pois with a 2004 Chateau Duhart-Milon; and a Fondant au Chocolat et Rhubabe aux Fraises. The champagne after was a Mumm Cordon Rouge.

At dinner I sat next to Bertrand Vannier, Washington bureau chief of Radio France, which he described as the French version of BBC World News. Though he’s been in and out of the U.S. for years, he’s called Washington his home for the last several months to focus on the presidential campaign. He gloated over the benefits of residing in the U.S. while getting paid in Euros. The weak dollar suits him fine. Plus, he said, over here we have “cheap gas.” In France the price per gallon is at least double.

The man on my left did not speak to me, but only to the woman on his left. Vannier was amused, dismissing him with a shrug as “a think tanker talking to another think tanker.”
Clockwise from above: Le Menu; French press attache Emmanuel Lennain and CNN's William Schneider; Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Martha Kumar (presidency scholar and presidential historian).
President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Ambassador Pierre Vimont.
British Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald catches the camera's eye.
Vannier is set to cover both political conventions. When asked how the race between John McCain and Barack Obama is viewed in France, his answer was quick. “In France, Obama already has been elected president.” Later, over coffee, CNN’s senior political analyst, William Schneider, backed up Vannier’s claim. “I was just in Paris,” he said, “and that’s the way it is.”

At the end of the evening the Ambassador and the former President wished us a happy American Independence Day. They have their own national holiday coming up Monday, when Vimont will entertain again, only on a much larger scale. There is a tradition at the French Embassy to have a big party on July 14th for Washington’s French community and the city’s many friends of France.

Others on the guest list for the Giscard dinner included Joelle Attinger, Jackson Diehl, Barbara Slavin, Frances Burwell, Michael Haltzel, Robert Hunter, David Ignatius, Frederick Kempe, Pamela Mayer, Larry Lanzillotta, Jamal Simmons, Tanya Lombard, Simon Serfaty, Justin Vaisse, Daniel Dombey, Tadej Rupel, Nicholas Dungan, Stanislas Vilgrain, Anne-Marie Descotes, Laurent Delahousse, Emmanuel Lenain, Jonah Blank, Nina Bhatt, Sean McCormack, Carl Lankowski, and Esther Brimmer.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.