Juliette Greco seems to have lived so many lives that it is a jolt to find that she is still alive, and still miraculously youthful, and still making records. At the age of 71 (going on 51), she has just produced a new album, her first for five years. The record - Un jour d'ete et quelques nuits ("A summer's day and several nights") - has been a critical success. Le Monde said that her performance was "untouchable, intact, sincere to the last sigh". Liberation said: "Greco spits or caresses the words like a Fauvist painter crushes the colours onto his canvas with his knife".
But the success of Greco, the singer, is as nothing compared to the success of Greco, the personality. In a tireless series of television, radio and newspaper interviews - travelling from one to the other in her unfashionable publicist's Renault Clio with her bare feet up on the dashboard - she has recaptivated an older French public that had all but forgotten her, and astonished a young French public that barely knew who she was.
Dressed, as always, in black, the septuagenarian singer, actress and revolutionary has spun out endless anecdotes which illuminate, unselfconsciously, the second half of the century. There was the day a chic Parisian restaurant refused to give her a table because she was with a black man. She took the head waiter's hand and, making as if to kiss it, spat in his palm. Her companion was the jazz-trumpeter Miles Davis, her long-time lover.
She recalled that Jean-Paul Sartre (a conventional soul at heart, it seems) once asked Davis: "Why don't you marry Juliette?". Davis replied: "So as not to make her unhappy." Sartre, a close but platonic friend - or in Greco's phrase, "a standing-up lover" - once wrote a few songs for her. They were mysteriously "lost", depriving the world of the first existential pop lyrics.
And then there was her command performance for Augusto Pinochet in 1981. The Chilean regime regarded it as a great coup to persuade the leftist, international singing star to come to Santiago. She gave a recital consisting entirely of songs banned by the Pinochet regime: peace and revolution- ary songs. "I came on stage to a tumultuous reception," she recalled. "I went off to dead silence. That silence was one of the greatest triumphs of my career."
The 12 songs on the new album are a collaboration between the poet, playwright and script-writer Jean-Claude Carriere and her composer-pianist husband, Gerard Jouannest. Greco remains as politically correct and committed as ever. One song, "It was a night train", is about the deportation of Jewish children from France. (The teenaged Greco was arrested in 1942 because her mother was in the Resistance). There are also several ecological songs.
Greco's other great cause is the unavailing campaign to prevent Saint- Germain-des-Pres, her home and the heartland of 1950s existential-bohemian- student Paris, from becoming infested with fast-food restaurants and designer clothes stores. Her reputation was tarnished somewhat, however, when she took money last year to appear at the opening of one of the new shopping developments.
The incursion of Yves Saint Laurent, Benetton and Baskin-Robbins into the playground of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir points to another reason why Greco's comeback is like a visitation by a living ghost. Paris in her heyday was a cultural pressure cooker. Where else could Sartre have sat at a cafe table discussing women with Miles Davis? Such a meeting between two comparable characters would be unthinkable today.
Nor is there anyone in the great tradition of French song these days who can remotely compare, in depth of character or in international reputation, with Juliette Greco.