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".