Normally Le Monde gives little space to sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. But the austere French daily has outraged some readers by publishing a lengthy interview with the perpetual rock star Johnny Hallyday in which he casually admits to taking cocaine. John Lichfield reports.
The controversy falls into three parts.
There are the diehard Le Monde readers who believe the newspaper should never mention a "chanteur yeye" like Johnny Hallyday at all.
There are more broad-minded readers who were, none the less, astonished to find the newspaper permitting him to make a defence of cocaine and its artistic contribution to rock music.
Thirdly, there are those, like the magazine Marianne, who wonder aloud why Johnny Hallyday, 54, friend of President Jacques Chirac and member of the Legion of Honour, has not been prosecuted under France's famously Draconian drugs laws.
"For the same offences, for the same use of drugs, dealers, young people, poor people, citizens from the bottom rungs of society are being deprived of their liberty," the magazine said.
Marianne also demanded to know why, for two weeks, therock star's comments produced no reaction from the French media. (It was Le Monde, to its credit, which broke the silence by admitting that it had been bombarded by complaints from its readers).
For the rest, said Marianne, French journalists ignored Hallyday's confession "for one simple reason ... coke is also their secret." Since the Eighties, according to the magazine, use of cocaine has been widespread among French journalists, television personalities, lawyers, actors and writers.
"Cocaine is fun, sociable and useful: it gets rid of women's inhibitions and convinces men that they have sexual endurance."
Johnny Hallyday (like Le Monde) is a French institution. He claims to have introduced France to rock music in 1959 and has remained popular, and active, ever since, without ever becoming successful abroad.
Unlike Hallyday, Le Monde is an institution which has found it necessary to change its tune, a little, over time. Although still uncompromisingly excellent in its coverage of politics andworld events, the newspaper has broadened its range in recent years and now includes such novelties as a sports page. Even so, the two-page spread on Johnny Hallyday, launching his new record and a series of live concerts in France, was a startling departure.
The rock star spoke, rather movingly, of his early life and his unreliable Belgian father before describing his experiences with drugs.
He made it clear that he had come to rely on cocaine as a tool of his trade "to work, to start up the machine, to stand the pace ... I'm not proud of it ... but you have to remember that our songs come from somewhere. They don't fall off the Christmas tree".
The passage appeared in the interview without any comment or criticism by the newspaper. There has been a lively debate in France recently about the decriminalisation of drugs, but this has mostly been concerned with soft drugs, such as cannabis.
It is widely recognised that the problems with violence and unemployment in the "quartiers difficiles", or sink suburbs, of many French cities have been worsened by the increasing presence of hard drugs, mostly heroin but also cocaine.
"Imagine the reaction of the police and the justice system," wrote one angry Le Monde reader, "if the user of drugs was called Mohammed and lived in the Neuhof [a trouble district] in Strasbourg."
The newspaper's ombudsman, Thomas Ferenczi, rejected the criticism. He said the article accurately reflected the realities of the rock business: it did not reflect the newspaper's opinion on drugs.
Another reader, however, punning on the newspaper's title, wrote: "Adieu, Monde, cruel, j'abandonne" which translates roughly as: "Goodbye cruel World, I'm cancelling my subscription".
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