FESTIVALS / Rochelle around the clock: Philip Sweeney listens in vain for the sound of French music at Francofolies

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IN THE eight years of its existence, Francofolies has risen to the top rank of the numerous French popular musical festivals, preferred by many to the bigger Bourges Spring Festival for its relatively relaxed holiday atmosphere. 'C'est le plus cool des festivals,' remarked Bruno Lion, the Charge de Mission for Pop and Rock, representing the Ministry of Culture in the absence of his boss, the tres cool Jack Lang. The huge influx of festival-goers come not only for music but to stroll the quays and cobbled alleys of La Rochelle and eat mountainous plateaux de fruits de mer at the harbour-front restaurants.

As its name implies, Francofolies deals exclusively with music of francophone origin, and the large media contingent reflects this: hundreds of reporters and television and radio crews from France, a good few from Quebec, a smattering from Germany and the rest of Europe and one - the Independent - from the Anglophone world. This is not to say that all Anglophone influence is absent: on the contrary, it intrudes continuously, from the big Coca Cola and Reebok banners to the French rappers' cries of 'Yo', and shockingly, the presence in the bar of a bottle of something describing itself as Tilford's Schnapps Manzana Verde Spanish Apple Liqueur, in lieu of Calvados.

None the less, resisting 'Anglo- American hegemony' is a significant part of the motivation of the founder and figurehead of Francofolies, Jean-Louis Foulquier, a former actor who broadcasts his nightly radio show Pollen live from a backstage marquee throughout the week.

The problem with this laudable aim is that French popular music at its most commercial is about as distinctively French as a Benetton sweatshirt. The big stars at this year's Francofolies - the early Eighties top rocker Charlelie Couture, the current Swiss favourite Stephan Eicher, the perennial Jacques Higelin - play what is essentially international rock with French lyrics.

This still leaves a good deal of ground however for more individual material. Regionalism provides one avenue. The Basque singer Peio Serbielle's overblown rock ballads opened the week's concert, and on a twilight evening toward the end a substantial frisson was supplied by the ancient Corsican choral harmony singing of the Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses.

Most interesting, however, is the continuing return to fashion of France's earlier 20th-century popular musical heritage. This involves accordions sprouting here, there and everywhere including (as a sort of hedged bet), in the line-ups of the Franco-Spanish singers Malou and Nilda Fernandez. It also involves a crop of artists - the arcane, intellectual group Dora Lou, the humorous Chanson Plus Bifluoree, the flamboyantly camp Jean Guidoni - re-creating in spirit and in letter the repertoire of the great stars, from Piaf and Trenet to Greco and Gainsbourg. Piaf's protege Charles Aznavour himself starred on the fourth night, and much admiring comment was passed on his immaculate phrasing and the swing of his delivery.

Of all the great French singer- songwriters, none combined the key quality of chanson, its exultation of the lyric, with inventive and eclectic music better than Serge Gainsbourg. Two years after his death, he is rapidly approaching deification. Jane Birkin, his former companion and leading interpreter, and a French star by adoption, had announced that her show at Francofolie would be her last, as she saw no point in continuing in the absence of her mentor and sole songwriter.

In jeans and plimsolls, sipping warm water, Birkin looked disconcertingly fragile and distracted at a press conference before her show. Ten minutes in her presence illuminated the vehement response of a (female) music critic I had asked earlier about Birkin's reputation in France: 'Mais on l'adore, on l'aime, meme' - 'We're crazy about her, we love her even'. Birkin's simplicity and honesty, and her devotion to the memory of Gainsbourg, are what endear her to the French, as well as her slight, gamine voice (far better live than on record), a highly distinctive vehicle for the songs. Screams, endless applause, flowers and recall after recall greeted Birkin's set, which ended with the haunting 'Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais' ('I've come to tell you I'm leaving').

Offshoot Francofolies festivals are now established in Quebec and Bulgaria, and both countries sent contingents to La Rochelle. Canada's delegation included Francophile rock stars major (the much vaunted but rather bland Luc de Larochelliere) and minor (the Quebec independentist group French B) as well as new wave singer-songwriters such as Dan Bigras. After a lull of a decade since the Quebec independence referendum of 1981 stopped political individualism in its tracks, a new generation of text- centred performers, led by Richard Desjardins, is creating music which combines in an organic and convincing manner the best of American blues-tinged vitality and French lyricism. Bigras, a seasoned graduate of the bars and clubs of Montreal's Latin Quarter, sang a selection of his own songs as well as material by spiritual forebears such as Leo Ferre.

The Bulgarian-French connection is less evident - indeed, musically non-existent - but as personified by the elderly rocker Georgi Minchev and his group, it supplied a highly competent and enjoyable hour of energetic rock'n'roll, with lead guitar courtesy of one M Pierre, a dead ringer for Norman Tebbit (Minchev himself looked remarkably like Sir Richard Attenborough).