With the death of Johnny Hallyday, France has lost a member of an imaginary royal family and a working-class hero all at once. It was Mr. Hallyday’s combination of rebellion and hard work, of divinity and authenticity, that made him such an icon here.
If Anglophones always scoffed at him, it was because Mr. Hallyday wasn’t French enough for them. If the French adored him, it is precisely because he represented a fantasy of America: successful, fast, furious and yet vulnerable. In other words, heroic.
To Elvis Presley’s compatriots, Johnny the rocker could only be an impostor. To the French, Johnny the chanteur, who turned American rock ’n’ roll into French popular music, was a genius.
Mr. Hallyday adored America but it never loved him back. When he released his only album in English, it was distributed only in Francophone countries. When he performed at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2012 and toured the United States in 2014, the venues were mostly filled with French expats or fans who had traveled there to see him perform.
Like many powerful stories in contemporary France, Mr. Hallyday’s started in occupied Paris, where he was born Jean-Philippe Smet in 1943. Abandoned by his parents, a French mother too busy modeling for high-fashion houses such as Lanvin, and a hard-drinking Belgian father, he was raised by an aunt and her husband, cabaret entertainers who took the young boy with them on tour. It was only later that Jean-Philippe understood the true reason his aunt didn’t want him to go to school: Her husband had been a collaborator with France’s Nazi occupiers during the war and they were afraid of reprisals against their adoptive son.
In 1957, the same year that the 14-year-old Jean-Philippe learned about all this, he also discovered Elvis Presley. With an absent father and an adoptive one on the wrong side of history, Jean-Philippe did what many might see as an exercise in the fulfillment of his deepest desire: He invented an American father in Elvis, and Johnny Hallyday was born.
In the late 1950s, the effects of the Marshall Plan were kicking in for France and the rest of Western Europe: The French economy, awash with American goods, was in full recovery mode. French society was embracing American-style consumerism and pop culture with the passion of the newly converted.
Youth was on the march. Young people in France were intent on turning a page on the war, a calamity brought about by their parents and grandparents. Johnny Hallyday started singing and performing at barely 17. (A few years earlier, a 15-year-old Brigitte Bardot had graced the cover of Elle magazine and a 17-year-old Françoise Sagan’s first novel, “Bonjour Tristesse,” made her an instant literary success.) This was a generation who revered American pulp fiction as great literature, viewed Film Noir on par with the human comedy of Balzac, and saw American film directors such as Nicholas Ray and his “Rebel Without a Cause” as auteurs and artists, gods to the budding French New Wave.
Johnny Hallyday embraced the triumphant postwar American culture to become France’s very own Elvis. Like “the King,” or France’s own long-deposed kings, the French quickly called him by his first name only: he was simply Johnny. His resounding success and longevity at the top, a 55-year career, which knew no lull, was a tribute to his dedication to his public and to his métier.
He proved, in a country that prizes erudition above almost everything else, that you can have no formal education, no university degree, and yet achieve tremendous success if you work hard enough. Mr. Hallyday was a source of incredible pride for his working-class fan base. He was one of them. In interviews he always remained soft-spoken, simple and true. He loved people and people loved him: There was an invisible and very strong tie.
With time, Johnny came to embody “Les Trente Glorieuses,” the 30-year postwar boom regarded with nostalgia by French baby boomers. The way he seemingly refused to age, marrying five times; the way he sang without restraint about love and heartbreak; the way he spoke frankly of his battles with depression and his use of drugs; the way he never hid his vulnerability — all of this made him even more endearing, not just to his contemporaries, but to subsequent generations as well.
A few hours after his death was announced, the French philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, tried to explain on French radio the phenomenon that was Johnny Hallyday: “He was an idol, in other words, blasphemy incarnate. His death is that of a god who was in fact mortal. People say they can’t believe he is dead, simply because their belief in him, their faith in him, will not die. Many people never believed that Elvis died. The same will happen with Johnny.”