Vive le rock'n'roll

A new compilation album shows how the French rock scene seems to be thriving in spite of - and not because of - protectionist laws. Claire Allfree reports
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The Independent Culture

In an old working-men's club in the East End of London, a callow outfit with a glamorous female singer are on stage attacking their guitars with a feral intensity. The place is jumping. It's just another night in London's thriving gig scene - with one difference. The band isn't British or American, but French.

In an old working-men's club in the East End of London, a callow outfit with a glamorous female singer are on stage attacking their guitars with a feral intensity. The place is jumping. It's just another night in London's thriving gig scene - with one difference. The band isn't British or American, but French.

France has contributed more than its fair share to Western culture, but one thing it has never got its head round is rock'n'roll. The leather-clad sexagenarian Johnny Hallyday remains the most enduring image of a French rock star. Michel Sardou and Charles Aznavour, veteran singers at 55 and 78, respectively, sell more tickets for live concerts in France than Madonna does. The French have stylish electronica covered thanks to the legacy of Serge Gainsbourg; Laurent Garnier remains a force on the dancefloor; Paris can claim with good reason to be the capital of world music; Les Négresses Vertes have a global following; and French hip-hop is doing just fine. What the French have never been able to do with any credibility whatsoever, however, is rock.

Until now. A new compilation, Le Nouveau Rock'n'Roll Français, is released this week, featuring 22 strutting young French bands with guitars in their mitts and fire in their loins. Few are signed, and most have virtually no following outside their home towns. Yet, collectively, their trashy aesthetic and reckless, visceral approach to sound produce what one might tentatively describe as a "scene". The French-born, UK-based producer Ludovic Merle, who helped to compile the album, defines the bands as having "a common energy". "The bands all sound quite sexy," he continues. "The sound is very today." Most significant of all, nearly all sing in English.

This wasn't supposed to happen. In 1996, when the culture minister of the time, Jacques Toubon, decreed that French radio must devote at least 4 per cent of its airplay to French-language pop music, with 20 per cent consisting of new French music, the loi Toubon became the definitive statement of French anxiety about the impact of the US on French identity. On the radio, la chanson française was in, and anything remotely resembling British rock or American R&B was out.

The law was adjusted slightly in 2000, in response to complaints from radio stations, and the percentage breakdown between non-French music, French music and new French talent now varies, depending on whether you are an adult radio station, an adult/youth station or a youth station. Essentially, though, it serves the same purpose: to protect French heritage and nurture French culture. The problem is that many people in France think that the quota's efforts at protectionism have had a detrimental effect on new music. If the latter is thriving, they believe that, in many respects, it is thriving by default.

Toubon's directive was inspired in part by a law passed by President Mitterrand in 1981, which made France's many pirate radio stations legitimate. Inevitably, most DJs started broadcasting US and British pop and rock, which they had pretty much been doing anyway. Toubon's decision 15 years later was consequently seen by many as a reactionary measure by a right-wing culture minister who, in strong contrast to his predecessor, Jack Lang, had no interest in the development of young French artists. Lang was praised for pouring money into music development and music festivals.

Although radio stations initially protested that there wouldn't be enough new music to meet the quota, a fear borne out by statistics showing that the average managed 37 per cent rather than 40 per cent in the first four years, figures provided by the French Music Bureau suggest that the industry itself responded well. Record-company investment in new talent tripled, while sales of French music rose from 49 per cent of total sales, in 1995, to 60 per cent, in 2002.

Corinne Micaelli, from the bureau, says that the quota system has had a positive effect. "The quota has developed the production of French talents and the sale of French records," she says. "As labels know, there is a window on radio to distribute young French artists, so they invest more in those. It has enabled French radio to develop less mainstream stations and cater for niche markets."

The bureau points in particular to the success of Skyrock, a youth-oriented radio network, which turned to French-language hip-hop (the dominant music of France's multicultural banlieues) to meet the quota and promptly saw its audience share rocket. Today, France has the biggest hip-hop market outside of America. French hip-hop records regularly sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies each time, which is big for France, with the French rap star MC Solaar a particular beneficiary: to date he has sold five million records. Incidentally Toubon recommended MC Solaar when the ruling was pushed through as someone worth listening to because he perpetuated "the French tradition' - although not, one suspects, because MC Solaar raps, but because he mixes it with French poetry.

Yet, in practice, many new bands have felt stifled and cut adrift from a system they believe is interested only in preserving the past rather than investing in the future. "When some of the bands on our album were approached by record companies, they were asked if they would record in French,' says Merle. "Nearly all the bands refused; hence no deal." Meanwhile, Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, editor of French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, points out that the French record industry's notion of signing new talent is invariably to manufacture a French version of a successful English band rather than look for something genuinely new. "When Nirvana were big, the majors fell over themselves to create the French Nirvana," he says. "The same happened with Placebo and Muse."

Electronica is a particularly interesting case in point with regards to loi Toubon. While Air and Daft Punk in the 1990s undeniably benefited from the early support of the semi-independent French label Source, which put out early tracks by both bands, the success of both bands came about without any help from the quota whatsoever. "Because Air and Daft Punk sang in English, they didn't meet the quota," Beauvallet says. "So the two bands to make it outside of France in recent years did so in spite of the quota, not because of it."

Elsewhere, young French artists took matters into their own hands. Most of the bands on Le Nouveau Rock'n'Roll Français have put out their own records, supported by live-music scenes in their home towns and radio DJs aired records by artists that simply weren't ready for broadcast or gave airtime to wildly experimental and political bands such as Bérurier Noir. "Toubon created this law to protect the French and instead created a whole new wave of musician," Beauvallet says gleefully. Other bands such as Louise Attaque circumvented the need for radio airplay completely, selling 700,000 copies of their first record before the radio even picked them up.

It doesn't help that the French record industry isn't geared to new talent in the way it is in the UK. "There are no independent record companies in France who can help a band get visibility like there is in the UK, and even if there were, there are no 100-capacity venues in Paris with which to do it," says Paris-based promoter Jean-Baptiste Guillot. "And French record companies and the French record-buying public tend to go for longevity rather than novelty. There's no newcomer every few weeks like there is in England."

The compilation Le Nouveau Rock'n'Roll Français came about when the promoter Sean McLusky set up his Expose nights in the Nouveau Casino in Paris, in 2002, a French version of his showcase Sonic Mook nights. Along with Guillot, he encouraged local French bands to join the line-up and was amazed by the response, both in Paris and in the suburbs beyond. He likens it to the explosion in renegade garage-rock bands that sprang up in England at the start of the millennium, inspired by the success of The Strokes and The White Stripes. "Some of these French bands have been around for four or five years," he says. "They are part of a very disparate homegrown scene; they never seem to play anywhere, and are affiliated only because they use guitars. But the industry has never been interested, and they've always lacked a focus."

Certainly, most of the bands on the record revive a similarly punk-rock attitude to that which has kept the British rock scene going with such momentum in recent years, coupled with an invigorating, snarling, DIY aesthetic. Temple Temple combine 1960s garage rock with strutting 1970s disco; Fancy offering glamorous, riot-grrrl ecstasy; and Prototypes' sharp mix recalls the smart, politicised New Wave of Le Tigre.

Guillot believes that, while France has always been a great champion of electronica, young people are starting to get bored with club culture. "With the rock'n'roll revival going on overseas, a lot of people are starting to remember that rock'n'roll is cool, too," he says. "Several of the bands on the compilation - The Film, Boy from Brazil and Prototypes - originally started out making electronica records."

Beauvallet thinks that the conservatism of the quota has perversely ensured that new French music is in better shape than ever. "French artists who want to be in a band have long resigned themselves to never being signed in France, so it means they are much less commercially minded," he says. "So you get people starting up bands for fun, rather than because they think they can make a career out of it."

The Nouveau Rock'n'Roll phenomenon is only the tip of the iceberg. "Every year, the magazine invites its readers to send in demo tracks for our annual Christmas CD," he says. "In the past, most people have sent in music that's clearly in debt to Radiohead, Massive Attack etc. But these days, the stuff is completely off the radar." And is most of it in English? "Out of 7,000 tracks, 6,000 were in English."

'Le Nouveau Rock'n'Roll Français' is out now on V2