France pays homage to late rock icon Johnny Hallyday
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France pays homage Saturday to French rock icon Johnny Hallyday, who died this week of lung cancer at 74. French President Emmanuel Macron will pay a brief tribute to the singer, who will be honoured with a procession down the Champs-Élysées.
President Macron will be among those paying tribute to the singer at his funeral at the grandiose Madeleine church in the centre of the French capital.
Known as the French Elvis, Hallyday is being honoured with a nationwide "popular homage".
The RATP transport authority temporarily changed the name of Paris's Duroc station this week to "DuRock Johnny" in his honour. The Eiffel Tower also lit up with the message, "Merci Johnny".
Adored by young and old, hard-living Hallyday was almost a national monument, selling more than 110 million records despite being almost unknown outside the French-speaking world.
Television channels cleared their schedules this week to broadcast tribute shows to Hallyday, who first came to fame in the late 1950s yet always managed to adapt to ever-changing musical tastes.
Last goodbye for fans
Fans chanting "Johnny! Johnny!" amassed in Paris as the funeral cortège headed past his home in a Paris suburb near Versailles to Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe monument.
"The family and friends of Johnny Hallyday and the President have agreed that as a part of the popular homage, his funeral cortège will leave from the Arc de Triomphe and go down the Champs-Élysées" before continuing to the religious ceremony at Madeleine church, a statement from the presidential palace said.
As the huge cortège paused on the Champs-Élysées, Hallyday's band members began playing his greatest hits from a specially built stage.
"All my life I listened to him morning, noon and night," said lifelong fan Claude Broos, who travelled from Belgium to watch the procession.
"Even now I can't believe that he is dead, I shed a tear," said 36-year-old Johnny Bernard, who camped overnight on the Champs-Élysées with his wife and daughter.
Some fans cried as Hallyday's body, in a white coffin, was driven down the grand ceremonial avenue towards La Madeleine. A huge portrait of the singer hung from the façade and fans – hundreds of whom had spent the night in the streets – sang his songs and did the twist to keep warm on a sunny but freezing cold morning.
The ceremony will end with a concert by Hallyday's band in front of La Madeleine, which was also the site of Chopin's funeral in 1849.
"Because he loved France he would have loved this," Macron declared as the coffin was laid on the steps of the church before the crowd.
"He was part of us, part of France ... its prodigal son who suffered terribly, furiously on stage for us. Johnny was ours ... because Johnny was a lot more than a singer, he was life," the president said.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy said Hallyday "was someone who really counted in French people's lives".
"For lots of people Johnny represents the idea of happiness. He leaves a huge hole," he added.
Sarkozy is a huge Hallyday fan who tried to lure him back to France from tax exile. He officiated at Hallyday's marriage to his fifth wife Laeticia, 42, while his predecessor Jacques Chirac made him a knight of the Légion d'Honneur in 1998.
On a tous en nous quelque chose de Johnny Hallyday. Le public de fans et de fidèles qu'il s'était acquis est en larmes. Nous n'oublierons ni son nom, ni sa gueule, ni sa voix. Le voici au panthéon de la chanson où il rejoint les légendes du rock et du blues qu'il aimait tant.Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) December 6, 2017
Yet the French establishment has not always been so warm to the flamboyant performer who, as he grew older, cultivated an air of a benign leather-clad pirate.
When he started belting out American rock more than five decades ago Hallyday was seen as a threat to a conservative France led by the stiff General Charles de Gaulle, with one radio announcer even smashing one of his records on air.
But he drove his young fans wild, attracting 100,000 to a Paris square in 1963 and prompting scenes of hysteria wherever he went.
Over the years he kept his bad-boy image alive with a colourful private life, ticking off many rock 'n' roll rites of passage, and was rarely off the front pages of celebrity magazines.
He was still filling stadiums as late as this summer when he teamed up with other veteran French rockers for the "Old Scoundrels" tour.
Hallyday had always dreamed of making it big in the US but never did, settling instead for living in Los Angeles, where he had a home in Pacific Palisades near Hollywood stars Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck.
"It's better to be king in one's own country than a prince elsewhere," he once told AFP.
Hallyday will be buried in the French Caribbean island of Saint Barts, where he had a home. His body will be flown to the island on Sunday morning and buried on Monday.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)