PARIS – Journalists have to go back to Victor Hugo’s massive funeral in the 19th century to find anything like the final farewell Paris gave Saturday for rocker Johnny Hallyday, now in the Olympus of French pop culture.
The singer’s emotional connection with an entire country, from top to bottom of French society, was crystallized in the hundreds of thousands of people packing the Champs-Elysees despite a temperature hovering around 0 C (32 F).
The “Johnny” phenomenon is so truly French that it is not really understood beyond the country’s borders.
He was the pop singer who brought rock to France, a pioneer and artist always able to reinvent himself, and so move beyond generations to find a place in the hearts of his compatriots whatever their age.
By the same token, he never rejected the approaches of almost all the presidents of the 5th Republic who sought to share his aura in order to benefit from the artist’s popularity – the exception was Charles de Gaulle, whom he opposed in his youth.
And there they were this Saturday: President Emmanuel Macron and his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, along with thousands of Hallyday devotees, many not as young as they used to be, who spent the night on the Champs-Elysees or in the Place de la Concorde to be sure to get a place in the front row when the artist’s casket passed by.
The funeral procession left the mortuary in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris, escorted by more than 700 motorcyclists, most riding a Harley-Davidson, as Hallyday himself did until shortly before his death last Wednesday at age 74.
His wife, Laeticia Hallyday, arrived on foot behind the hearse together with the two daughters of their marriage, Jade and Joy, to the Church of La Madeleine, where she was received by President Macron and his wife with an emotional hug.
Following the tributes to Hallyday at the church, and after France’s day of collective catharsis, one of the rocker’s friends, the writer Daniel Rondeau, observed: “Johnny reigns on the pedestal of French mythology, between De Gaulle and Tintin” the cartoon character.