France awaits rocker Hallyday's final show -- his funeral

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Paris (AFP)

Thousands of fans are expected to line the streets of Paris on Saturday to bid a final farewell to Johnny Hallyday, the rock 'n' roll "corrupter of youth" who went on to become a very French cultural icon.

Hallyday, a lifelong smoker of untipped Gitanes cigarettes, died of lung cancer on Wednesday aged 74, prompting an outpouring of emotion that France has not seen since the death of Edith Piaf.

Diehard fans of the leather-clad "French Elvis" began to gather overnight on the Champs Elysees to get the best view possible for the "national homage" that will be paid to the singer.

Up to 700 bikers are expected to follow his hearse from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs Elysees at midday (1100 GMT) in an echo of the grand pomp of state funerals that France grants its greatest heroes.

"Johnny Hallyday's musicians will accompany him musically" on his final journey, the French presidency said, with images from his 55-year career projected on screens along the route.

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

His funeral will begin with "brief" tributes by French President Emmanuel Macron and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy -- a big fan of the singer, who conducted the rocker's fifth marriage and once tried to lure him back from tax exile.

- Pop cultural idol -

The ceremony will end with a concert by his band members on a specially built stage in front of the grand Madeleine church, which also hosted Chopin's funeral.

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 of his pop cultural cachet.

"He was someone who really counted in French people's lives," Sarkozy said of the man who was credited with introducing rock 'n' roll to the land of chanson ballads.

"For lots of people Johnny represents the idea of happiness. He leaves a huge hole," the former president said.

But for some in Hallyday's 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's, 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 and simplicity" should be laid to rest in a millionaires' hideaway.

- Fans' grief -

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.

Other fans demanded that a monument be built in France to the star, who was abandoned by his parents as a baby and brought up by an aunt and uncle, who were cabaret performers.

While not all French people were taken by his often derivative American-rooted rock, with one critic labelling him "France's independent musical nuclear deterrent", his mark on national life was undeniable.

"There is a before and after Johnny Hallyday," said Michka Assayas, author of the "New Dictionary of Rock".

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

"He was an idol. His death is that of a god who was in fact mortal," he told French radio.

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