Little more than a century ago, the French novelist André Gide was asked to name France’s greatest poet. “Victor Hugo, alas,” he replied. Gide’s rascally but revealing answer comes to mind with the news of Johnny Hallyday’s death Wednesday at the age of 74. Finally succumbing to a lung cancer he had carefully cultivated all of his life with Gitanes, Hallyday was, hélas, France’s greatest rocker.
Inspired by Elvis Presley, Hallyday went on to become the most famous Frenchman Americans never knew. (Though his failure to take America by storm was not for lack of trying: He made several spectacularly failed attempts to win over an American audience — including an album produced by Quincy Jones — climaxing in his sublimely ridiculous 1996 escapade, when he spearheaded an invasion of Las Vegas by 5,000 of his hometown fans — who paid tens of thousands of francs each — filling what otherwise would have been a cavernously empty Aladdin Theater.)
Tragically, Hallyday also came to embody a certain idea of France that quite a few French never knew and that, like Hallyday, now seems condemned to a slow and terminal death.
Born Jean-Philippe Smet, he was the offspring of a Franco-Belgian couple who had abandoned him and one another shortly after his birth in 1943 in occupied Paris. Fourteen years later, Smet stumbled onto his road to Damascus in a movie house in the red-light district of Pigalle. The teenager, who had dropped out of school and frequented music halls, bought a ticket to see Loving You, the movie that introduced Elvis Presley to the world in full Technicolor.
The storyline — Presley plays a deliveryman discovered by a country music publicist — certainly appealed to the ambitious young man, but no less compelling were Presley’s swiveling pelvis and smoldering pout. It was, Smet recalled, “le flash.” Donning tight jeans, a black leather coat, and the Americanish name Johnny Hallyday, he set out to conquer France.
In one sense, he seems to have succeeded: in an official statement, President Emmanuel Macron declared to a mourning nation (riffing on one of Hallyday’s early hits “Quelque chose de Tennessee,” or “Something of Tennessee”) that “we all have something of Johnny in us.” But — and herein lies the hidden meaning of Hallyday — some French have much more of Johnny in them than others.
It so happens that those same French also seem to have much less of a future in France than the others.
Hallyday mostly puzzles Americans who have listened to his music and watched his shows. While his personal life and professional career resemble Édith Piaf’s, he lacks — at least to our ears — Piaf’s brilliant voice and commanding charisma. For this reason, American media habitually refer to Hallyday as the French Elvis. This phrase, however, conceals as much as it reveals. After all, Gloria Steinem read The Second Sex, but that did not make her “the American Simone de Beauvoir” — she lacked the philosophical and left-wing ideological credentials for that. (Nor would de Beauvoir have followed Steinem in going undercover at the Playboy Club had she read Ms. Magazine.)
Ultimately, though Hallyday glommed on to aspects of Presley’s music and mannerisms, from riding Harleys onto the stage to moving his hips (and falling off stages), he never tapped into the King’s musical genius. By any measure, he was clueless about the African-American roots of rock ’n’ roll. While James Brown could hail Presley as a “soul brother,” he would have been nonplussed by Hallyday.
But Hallyday was so much more than an Elvis impersonator with a thick Gallic accent. Instead, Hallyday managed to transpose Presley’s idioms to connect with a disadvantaged, and otherwise forgotten, slice of France — what the Hallyday biographer Philippe Boggio calls “l’autre France” (the other France) and the sociologist Christophe Guilluy identifies as “la France périphèrique” (peripheral France).
In his writings, Guilluy presents a grim and controversial analysis of a France as deeply divided as red and blue America. Yet the division is not along traditional geographical, ethnic or religious lines, but instead between what Guilluy calls “métropoles” and “périphéries.” While the professional classes in Paris and Grenoble surf the great waves of technological and commercial change, the peripheral spaces have stagnated into tidal pools for those washed to one side. Unable to compete in the rapidly evolving job market and unable to afford life in increasingly expensive cities, these men and women, avoiding suburbs where immigrant populations have settled, instead migrate to the exurbs and rural zones. This is an increasingly raw and reactionary socioeconomic group mostly ignored by the traditional left, as well as Macron’s centrist La République En Marche, and which has become the choice recruiting ground for the extreme left and right.
Hallyday’s horde that occupied the Aladdin was the advance (though aging) guard of France’s own silent majority. This France was heaved into existence during the student revolt of the summer of 1968. The revolutionaries, the offspring of a modernizing middle class created by France’s postwar economic boom, went on to impose their cultural and political dominance in 1981 with the presidency of the Socialist François Mitterrand. It was this professional and increasingly cosmopolitan class that congregated in “métropoles” like Paris, Toulouse, and Grenoble.
Hallyday happened to be sunbathing at Saint-Tropez when the student revolt burst into existence. Pas de problème, declared his fans. These fans, unlike the “metropolitans,” hailed from traditional industries undermined by the end of the so-called “30 glorious years” of economic growth. This threatened class overlapped, in turn, with marginalized communities like the hundreds of thousands of French Algerians who were repatriated to France after 1962.
While they could not afford to join Johnny on the Côte d’Azur, they admired their idol’s ability to do so. In fact, they admired Johnny’s conspicuous consumption (of drugs and alcohol as much as of fast cars and young women) far more than they did the bourgeois students playing at revolution on the barricades. While the Paris of intellectuals and students was seeking, in the era’s famous phrase, “the beach below the cobblestones,” the provinces of Hallyday’s fans wanted to join Johnny on a real beach. Paris returned the incomprehension and irritation of the provinces in spades. They scorned Hallyday as the embodiment of a foreign way of life — aka American pop culture — that they found as menacing as communist totalitarianism.
For the last half century, “l’autre France” has been Johnny’s France. Hallyday’s politics have always pulled to the right. Just as Elvis found a friend in Richard Nixon, Johnny embraced Nicolas Sarkozy, making a star turn at Sarko’s notorious bash at Fouquet’s following his election as president in 2007. But Hallyday’s political arc closely tracks those who collect his albums, congregate at his concerts, and carry the same tattoos. These communities, increasingly estranged from Paris, heard their lives in Johnny’s songs (mostly written by others) and saw their dreams in Johnny’s life (mostly lived in the glare of paparazzi cameras). Battered in the great churn of globalization, those dreams mostly died before Hallyday himself did. But they will not be surrendered easily. As one of his fans, who joined the growing press gathering outside Hallyday’s house, declared: “His death is as important for me as de Gaulle’s or Mitterrand’s. I hope he’ll be buried at the Panthéon: he deserves it.”
The Panthéon might prove a bridge too far. When Hugo died in 1885, a grateful republic saw him off with a massive funeral march beginning at the Arc de Triomphe, filing along the Champs-Élysées and ending at the Panthéon. While plans are now afoot for a similar cortège for Hallyday — a member of Macron’s party has described Hallyday’s death as being as momentous as Hugo’s — the president might draw the line at the Panthéon. Who knows? Just as there is now a French Disneyland, a French Graceland might soon be in the offing.