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France bids emotional farewell to rocker Hallyday
French actor and singer Patrick Bruel kisses the coffin during the funeral ceremony of late French singer Johnny Hallyday at the Eglise de la Madeleine (La Madeleine Church) in Paris, on December 9, 2017. French music icon Johnny Hallyday died on December 6, 2017 aged 74 after a battle with lung cancer, plunging the country into mourning for a national treasure whose soft rock lit up the lives of three generations. Thibault Camus / POOL / AFP.

by Fiachra Gibbons


PARIS.- France paid an emotional farewell Saturday to Johnny Hallyday -- the singer who taught the country how to rock -- in a highly theatrical "people's tribute" that brought Paris to a standstill.

Hundreds of thousands of people lined the Champs Elysees to watch his white coffin, escorted by some 700 bikers, descend the great ceremonial avenue in what was a state funeral in all but name.

Diehard fans of the leather-clad "French Elvis" began to gather overnight in the centre of the French capital for an outpouring of emotion for a singer not seen since the death of Edith Piaf.

As the huge cortege paused in front of the grand Madeleine church where French President Emmanuel Macron waited on the steps with the singer's family, the throng -- many in tears -- began chanting over and over, "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny Hallyday".

"Because he loved France he would have loved to see you here," Macron declared as the coffin was laid on the steps of the church before the crowd.

"I know that you are expecting him to suddenly appear from somewhere, maybe on a motorbike. He would start the first song and you would join in with him.

"He was part of us, part of France... its prodigal son who suffered terribly, furiously on stage for us.

"We had to be here for Johnny because he was there for us," he added. "Johnny was ours... He was a lot more than a singer, he was life," the president added.

One last big show
Hallyday, once condemned as the rock 'n' roll "corrupter of youth" who went on to become a very French cultural icon, died of lung cancer on Wednesday.

With an untipped Gitanes cigarette often at his lip, he held France entranced for five decades with his spectacular stage shows and equally colourful private life, reinventing himself for each generation.

A huge portrait of the singer hung from the facade of the grand Madeleine church, with fans -- many of whom spent the night in the surrounding streets -- singing his songs and doing the twist to keep warm on a bright but freezing cold morning.

Television stations cleared their schedules to broadcast the "people's tribute" live, ensuring that the "beast of the stage", who sold more than 110 million records, went out with one last big show.

Hollywood actress Marion Cotillard wept amid the prayers and tributes by a galaxy of French stars, including his friends Jean Reno and Carole Bouquet, to a man who was abandoned as a child and spent a lifetime battling his demons and addictions.

But the four hours of ceremony ended almost joyously with mourners inside and outside the Madeleine, which hosted Chopin's funeral in 1849, clapping along to blues and gospel musicians who followed the coffin out of the church.

In one final grand gesture, Hallyday's beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle was left riderless on the cobblestones outside like a fallen cavalry officer's horse.

Pop cultural idol
That the French government had to invent a new type of ceremony to honour the singer, who was almost unknown outside the French-speaking world, speaks volumes about his pop cultural cachet.

"He was someone who really counted in French people's lives," said former president Nicolas Sarkozy, a huge fan who officiated at the singer's fifth wedding and tried to lure him back from tax exile.

"For lots of people Johnny represents the idea of happiness," he added.

But for some in Hallyday's white working-class fan base, the fact that he will be buried in the French Caribbean island of Saint Barts -- where he had a home -- added to the heartache.

Veteran French pop star Michel Polnareff, an old friend of the star, said Friday that he found it "strange that his fans should be deprived of Johnny" in this way.

Others found it hard to swallow that an idol adored for his "ordinariness" should be laid to rest in a millionaires' hideaway.

His body will be flown to the island on Sunday and buried on Monday.

One fan, Francois Le Lay, told AFP that "we would have preferred if he was buried in Paris, but if Johnny wanted that, we will respect it".

"My wife and I will put the money aside that we would have spent going to his concerts so we can fly to Saint Barts one day," he said.

While not all French people were taken by his often derivative American-rooted rock, his mark on national life was undeniable.

The Eiffel Tower was lit up all weekend with the message "Merci Johnny" (Thank you Johnny).

Philosopher Raphael Enthoven said it was difficult to overplay the effect of Hallyday's passing.

"People say they can't believe he is dead because their belief in him will never die," he told French radio. "Many people never believed that Elvis died. It's the same for Johnny."


© Agence France-Presse





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