Arts: Si, si, nous sommes des rock stars

The shame of Johnny Hallyday is but a distant memory. Britain has lost its monopoly. Whisper it... French pop is cool.

Rolling down to La Rochelle for a date with some fruits de mer and French pop, I picked up the arts weekly Les Inrockuptibles. "MADE IN FRANCE." trumpeted the cover. "How our music scene, after thirty years of frustration, has become one of the most highly rated in the world."

Nom d'un chien, this was going to excite the person I was meeting - Marie- Agnes Beau, the brains behind the latest Gallic attempt to undermine the cultural domination of perfidious Albion. Financed by the French Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture and by the music industry, the new French Music Bureau has been operating out of the French Embassy in London since May. A former clinical psychologist ("useful for dealing with musicians"), Beau has been charged with furthering the export of French popular music in the UK.

Culture Minister Jack Lang set the ball rolling at the beginning of the Nineties when he appointed Bruno Lion as Charge de Mission for Rock and Pop. Lang's successors, latterly Catherine Trautmann, have kept up the campaign, building new subsidised concert venues, funding training programmes, chanson promotions in schools, and introducing the much-derided legal quotas for French music on radio. These are now regarded by some opponents as having worked, with the advance of Anglo-American record sales checked and French productions constituting more than 50 per cent of the nation's consumption for the first time in years.

And the once-snooty Anglo-Saxons are listening. In the USA, a duo of Bordeaux sisters, Les Nubians, are high in the soul charts. In the UK, French rap is attracting attention - witness the Kronenbourg TV ad featuring an MC Solaar soundtrack - and French techno, the so-called "French touch", selling by the cartload, with the Mr Oizo Levi's ad number following the huge success of Daft Punk and Air.

How much of a triumph for French identity does this actually represent? When Inrockuptibles canvassed young French artistes as to which star brought most shame on the nation, Johnny Hallyday was most cited, for having changed his name from Jean-Philippe Smet and become an abject American mimic. But isn't that also the case with Didier Morville, now rich and infamous as Joey Starr, leader of the police-baiting rap act NTM?

No, claims Marie-Agnes Beau, the variety and lyrical inventiveness of French rap give it a distinctive quality not unallied to chanson. This is a fair point, particularly when one considers the rich, melodic pop- rap of an artiste like Doc Gyneco. As for instrumental dance music, the question of national identity scarcely arises. What, I asked Nick Harris of the NRK label, UK agent for DJ Dimitri of Paris, is the "French touch" in techno? Well, it's kind of a cool atmosphere, a sort of classiness, he defined, before conceding that "it all comes from the USA at the end of the day."

If there is still distinctively French music, Francofolies should be the place to find it. Started 15 years ago by actor and broadcaster Jean- Louis Foulquier, from a family of La Rochelle oyster-farmers, its aim was specifically to showcase Francophone work. The big open-air concerts by the old harbour walls have traditionally featured heavyweight mainstream pop acts, while the 30 per cent Government subsidy has latterly come with an obligation to nurture young talent.

On the face of it, this year's Francofolies looked less Franco than ever. Last year the big names, led by Michel Sardou and Julien Clerc, failed to bring in the punters, while the new techno night flopped spectacularly. In 1999, Francofolies played the card of metissage, or world hybridisation. - the buzz-word of the Nineties among French popular arts decision-makers, seen partly as a Republican political statement against the far right.

Metissage has many aspects. One is the remarkable rise of Algerian-based music, from the Maghreb-rock fusion of the Toulouse band Zebda to the young pop-rai charm singer Faudel. Another is the boom in Latin music. A third concerns regionalism, from Toulouse and Marseilles rap to Corsican polyphony and, needless to say, much on the Celt front. In France, this means Breton, from the sublime but dull (Denez Prigent wailing 13th-century gwerz ballads) to the ridiculous but fun (young chart act Manau, rapping cheerily in front of a kilted piper and a papier mache dolmen-styled turntable desk).

Where in all this was pure French music, the line of descent from Briant, Brassens, Greco and Gainsbourg? I asked Serge Hureau, director of the National Centre of Chanson and Varietes (Pop). "That's just Parisian Left Bank post-war song - a cliche," he said. "It's always been much more than that - the regions, the input from across the Mediterranean, the embracing of exotic tropical sounds..."

Notwithstanding this, a trawl of the back-up acts of Francofolies revealed plenty of good French music. Not this year any of the interesting chanson minimaliste school of singers such as Dominique A, Philippe Katerine or Miossec, but a profusion of young artistes reworking chanson traditions, often using accordions, and melodic and lyrical traditions from the North and South of Europe, rather than of America.

And then there was Zazie. Star of the opening night, Zazie is one of the most successful new French artistes of the Nineties, with three hit albums and a clutch of awards, and a songwriter sought by everyone from teen star Pascal Obispo to Jane Birkin, and, yes, Hallyday himself.

Tall, photogenic Zazie, born Isabelle de Truchis de Varenne into a family of impoverished aristocrats now fallen on easy times, is the darling of the French media - one recent feature writer compared an interview with Zazie to a night by a vanilla-scented lake. At a Francofolies press conference, Zazie resembled not so much a pool of vanilla as the former physiotherapy student she in fact is, with a professional grasp on her craft and a diplomatic word in response to the H question: "Johnny Hallyday's quite far from my musical universe, but he has such force, he's like Hurricane Mitch..." Well, Hurricane Jean-Philippe, perhaps, one might have added.

Zazie's musical universe is in fact distinctively French, with the classic blend of well-crafted texts, and melody conveyed by a slight, intimate singing style. Not forgetting a very Gainsbourgian penchant for dodgy English puns, as in her 1997 hit "Homme Sweet Homme".

What conclusions can we draw about French music's export potential? There's a great deal of modern, distinctive French music to discover, even if the international styles, instrumental dance and tropical genres are currently most visible. The snag is, you need to learn French. And finally, don't dismiss the Hallyday generation on the mere grounds of naffness - the biggest-earning French song last year turns out to be the venerable Claude Francois number "Comme d'Habitude". Which first infiltrated the Anglophone market 30 years ago under the nom de guerre "My Way".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones