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The French Greens fight — and lose — a pointless statue war

A different statue of Johnny Hallyday in the southeastern French village of Viviers. Credit: Getty

July 12, 2021 - 7:00am

The politics of statues have found an unlikely new would-be victim in Paris — the deceased French rock-star, Johnny Hallyday.

Green Party members of the city council attempted last week to cancel plans for a six-metre tall monument to “notre rocker national”, outside the Bercy concert and sports hall in the east of the French capital.

They failed. The statue — a five-metre-high mast in the shape of an electric guitar handle with a sculpture of a Harley-Davidson motorbike on top — will be unveiled by Hallyday’s widow Laetitia in September.

The Greens, junior members of the city’s ruling alliance, objected to the statue on several grounds: aesthetics; commercialism; the fact that motorcycles, unlike bicycles, emit fumes.

They were suspected of having another reason, though. Many younger and Left or green-leaning French people regard Johnny Hallyday, who died in 2017 aged 74, as being “pas cool”. He started out in 1959 as a teenager accused of polluting France with American music, not motorbike fumes. He then became part of the establishment — a symbol of national pride and a friend of conservative politicians like Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a 30-minute debate in the city council, the city’s Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said that the statue was a tribute to an “immense artist” who had appeared 101 times in the Bercy arena. She invited her Green allies to avoid “caricaturing themselves”.

Centre-Right councillors accused the Greens of cultural snobbery. Valérie Montandon said Johnny Hallyday was “part of our common history, our French heritage…It’s incredibly impudent to seek always to question our cultural foundations, especially when it’s anything to do with popular culture.”

Johnny Hallyday (born Jean-Philippe Smet) was crazy about motorbikes. He owned a score of them, including ten Harley-Davidsons.

In his unruly youth, he rode a motorbike into a Paris night club. In his later years, he spent much of his time in Los Angeles where he was a complete unknown — just another ageing Elvis wannabe — and could ride his bikes into the desert undisturbed.

The monument to Johnny had been sculpted by the septuagenarian artist Bertrand Lavier and donated to the city of Paris by the art gallery owner Kamel Mennour. It will now be inaugurated in September by Laetitia Hallyday, when the area in front of the Bercy stadium and concert hall, near the Gare de Lyon, will be named the “Esplanade Johnny Hallyday”.

There are two morals to this story. First: the obsessive priggishness of some French Greens is complicating alliances with more traditional and populist parts of the Left. Second: marvel at the extraordinary trajectory of “Johnny” (a better singer than les anglo-saxons ever admitted ) from corrupter of youth to national monument on a plinth.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.


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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

haha, Frogs, never going to make much sense. If I remember rightly there was a law in France back in the 1970s that the music industry had to market a couple French Rock songs to sell for every American/UK one, and so huge numbers of records, never to ever be bought, were made and distributed as merely a cost of selling the music the French young wanted.

And TV too, and Franglais, that much censored thing….

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

She invited her Green allies to avoid “caricaturing themselves”.

I guess she missed that boat …