Jean-Francois Bizot

Champion of counter-culture

Wednesday 19 September 2007 00:00 BST

Jean-François Bizot, publisher, editor, novelist: born Paris 19 August 1944; died Paris 8 September 2007.

Jean-François Bizot had an enormous influence on the cultural life of France over the past 40 years. Between 1970 and 1975, and again between 1979 and 1994, he was at the helm of the counter-culture monthly Actuel. This started out as a French take on the underground press, not too far removed from the Village Voice and the Los Angeles Free Press in the US, or Oz and the International Times in the UK, but eventually evolved into required reading not so much for the hippies as for the hip crowd.

In 1981, as François Mitterrand ascended to the French presidency and freed the airwaves from state control, Bizot launched Radio Nova, the pioneering station which championed world music before it was even called that, and various forms of hip hop and electronica. Indeed, Nova provided the springboard for acts like Mory Kanté, Rachid Taha, Tinariwen and Camille to reach a national and international audience. Bizot was a talent-spotter extraordinaire and gave slots and early exposure at the station to several presenters – Edouard Baer, Ariel Wizman and most notably the comedian Jamel Debbouze of Amélie fame – who have become mainstream names in France as actors, writers, producers and directors.

Bizot's trajectory as a free-thinking, libertarian figure was all the more surprising since he came from a well-established family with a considerable fortune, and had the benefit of a solid bourgeois education. Born in 1944, he was the youngest of five children and attended a school run by Jesuit priests in Versailles, and then the School of Chemical Industries in Nancy where he gained several diplomas.

"First you do what's expected of you, and then you do what you want," he said, putting that principle into effect by quitting his job as an economist forecaster after just a year to become a journalist at the news weekly L'Express in 1967. Galvanized by the events of May 1968 which nearly toppled the de Gaulle government, and inspired by a trip to California where he discovered the alternative press, Bizot put his inheritance money where his mouth was, quit his job at L'Express and launched Actuel in May 1970 as the bible of the counter-culture in France.

Bizot didn't pay himself a salary and ran a typically hippie-ish, commune-like operation, with everyone else getting 2,000 francs per month. His publication didn't always reach the printers or the distributors on time, but he gave a voice to ecologists, feminists, gay-rights activists, squatters and anti-racism campaigners in what was still, in the early Seventies, a pretty conservative country.

He also joined the dots between the poetry of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlaine, and existentialism, surrealism and Dadaism, and the music of Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart or Soft Machine and the subversive cartoons of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. He surrounded himself with excellent collaborators too, most notably Bernard Kouchner, who went on to found Médecins Sans Frontières, and is currently Minister of Foreign Affairs in François Fillon's government. The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy called on Kouchner is indicative of how far-thinking and influential Bizot and Actuel were in France.

A maverick, irreverent, at times autocratic editor, Bizot stopped publishing Actuel between 1975 – the first time it had turned a profit – and 1979, though two bumper annuals appeared during the intervening years. In 1979 he relaunched the magazine with a greater emphasis on reportage, travel and photography, and its circulation reached a peak of 400,000 in 1981. The publication of Actuel was "suspended" in 1994, when Bizot started the monthly Nova magazine which lasted for 10 years. In 1999, in parallel with running Radio Nova, its record label and its associated website, he also took over TSF with Frank Ténot, turning the troubled station into a successful outlet for jazz in the French capital.

Generous and always full of ideas, Bizot hated Sundays and holidays but travelled extensively, especially to Africa. He translated Charles Bukowski into French, and wrote two overviews of the alternative press phenomenon entitled Underground: L'Histoire ("Underground: the history", 2001) and Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications 1965-75 (2006), as well as several other books including the autobiographical novel Les Déclassés (1976) and Un Moment de Faiblesse ("A Moment of Weakness", 2003) in which he tackled his cancer battle with typical humour, giving the tumour a nickname: Jack Le Squatter.

Asked what underground culture meant, Bizot said: "You have to know when to take a sideways step, when to take a chance, when to do what no one else seems to be doing at the time. Like asking your grandparents to come and live with you. No one does that. That really sets the cat amongst the pigeons. The taxman never believes you can share a home with your grandparents. That is a truly alternative lifestyle!"

Pierre Perrone

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