Belgium, Johnny Hallyday's fatherland, mourns lost son

Brussels (AFP) –


From the Brussels metro where his songs echoed out, to the prime minister on Twitter, Belgium paid tribute Wednesday to late rock star Johnny Hallyday, whose father was Belgian.

While Hallyday was little known outside the French-speaking world, France has been plunged into mourning by his death, and it is not the only country where he is being grieved.

"As a homage to Johnny Hallyday, today we will play his greatest hits on the metro," the Brussels public transport company STIB said on Twitter in French and Dutch, the country's two main languages.

Hallyday's father was a Belgian married to a Frenchwoman who abandoned him shortly after his birth. Hallyday's real name was Jean-Philippe Smet, which he later gave up for his stage moniker.

Although the singer himself was born and raised in France he later tried to obtain Belgian nationality for "sentimental reasons", but gave up after a 10-year battle.

His application was rejected on the grounds that he was not resident in Belgium and could not prove a sufficiently strong attachment to the country.

He was accused at the time of trying to avoid French taxes.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel hailed Hallyday, who died of lung cancer aged 74, as an "immense popular artist".

"This morning we all have a Johnny Hallyday song that comes to mind," Michel wrote on Twitter. "He crossed generations. His work will always remain with us."

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker -- a former Luxembourg prime minister who is based at the EU's headquarters in Brussels -- paid tribute to a singer who was loved "in Europe and elsewhere".

Belgian's French-speaking television networks ran wall-to-wall coverage of the singer's passing, speaking to music experts and even a Johnny Hallyday impersonator named Johnny Cadillac.

- Belgium close to his heart -

Belgium always appeared to be close to Hallyday's heart.

In a gesture of solidarity that was widely appreciated in Belgium, the rocker played two concerts in the country shortly after the 2016 Brussels attacks, refusing to cancel when other artists had done so citing security concerns.

The concert featured a rendition of "When We Only Have Love" by the legendary Belgian singer Jacques Brel.

But part of that link to Belgium may have been the father he never really knew.

"All my life I was obsessed by the absence of my father, up until his death. I never knew him, except for unpleasant moments. He was an alcoholic, a seducer, and a great artist," Hallyday told a newspaper in 2014.

"That didn't stop me crying at his funeral" in 1989 at Schaerbeek cemetery in Brussels, he said. "I was the only one there. Not a woman, not a friend. Absolute solitude before his death. I wouldn't want to go out like that."

Hallyday launched a very public campaign to win Belgian citizenship in 2006, even seeking the support of French then-presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, but was rejected after the case went all the way to the Belgian parliament's naturalisation committee.