PARIS – France bid farewell to its biggest rock star Saturday, honoring Johnny Hallyday with an extravagant funeral procession down Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue, a presidential speech and a televised church ceremony filled with the country’s most famous faces.
Few figures in French history have earned a send-off with as much pomp as the man dubbed the “French Elvis,” who notched more than 110 million in record sales since rising to fame in the 1960s.
Hallyday died Wednesday at 74 after fighting lung cancer.
In an honor usually reserved for heads of state or literary giants like 19th-century novelist Victor Hugo, Hallyday’s funeral cortege rode past Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe monument and down the Champs-Elysees to the Place de la Concorde plaza on the Seine River.
Adding a rock touch to the event, hundreds of motorcyclists accompanied the procession. It was a nod to the lifelong passion that Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Smet, had for motorcycles. His biker image included signature leather jackets and myriad tattoos.
French President Emmanuel Macron – a Hallyday fan himself, like three generations of others across the French-speaking world – delivered an eulogy on the steps of Paris’ Madeleine Church for the star known to the public affectionately by only one name.
“Johnny belonged to you. Johnny belonged to his public. Johnny belonged to his country,” said Macron, whose voice was broadcast via speakers to the many thousands of often tearful mourners in central Paris.
“He should have fallen a hundred times, but what held him up and lifted him was your fervor, the love,” said Macron of the star’s health troubles and famously excessive lifestyle.
Hallyday’s death unleashed a wave of emotion across France, where he had been a symbol of national identity and stability for more than half a century – even though his private life had been far from stable.
Aside from the drinking, smoking and partying chronicled in juicy detail by the French press, Hallyday had been linked to a string of glamorous women and had married five times.
Chants of “Johnny! Johnny!” and thunderous applause rose up Saturday as fans broke out singing Hallyday classics including “Que je t’aime” (“How I love you”).
About 1,500 police officers secured the area in Paris, a police helicopter flew overhead and emergency vehicles filled nearby streets as tens of thousands of fans lined the procession route. Many dressed to emulate Hallyday’s flashy, rebellious style. Some climbed on fences or stoplights or even the roof of a luxury hotel to get a better view.
Catherine Frichot-Janin, 61, and her husband traveled from Switzerland to pay their respects – saying that the only thing older than their 39-year marriage was their mutual love for Hallyday.
“He’s the companion who’s always there when you have a worry. There will always be his music playing in a bistro,” she said.
Dubbed by some “the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of” – Hallyday’s position as one of the greatest-selling musical artists of all time is unusual as he remained largely unknown outside the Francophone world. But in France, he influenced styles, music and even children’s names.
Laura Dublot, a 30-year-old Parisian, and her brother David are among many who were named after Hallyday’s older children, Laura and David.
“He’s a national icon. This scale of funeral is not surprising – he’s united three generations of French,” Dublot said.
Laurenne Coral, 25, from Lyon, explained that “for the French, he’s like what Queen Elizabeth is for the English.”
A lineup of speakers paid homage inside the neo-classical Madeleine Church, including actors Marion Cotillard and Jean Reno and singer Patrick Bruel.
Bruel, an old friend, said when Hallyday died “it’s like they took away the Eiffel Tower in the middle of the night.”
Fittingly, the words “Thank you Johnny” are being displayed on the famed Paris monument over the weekend.
Hallyday likely would have approved of this send-off, having told French media he dreaded the idea of an isolated funeral like the one he attended for his father in 1989.
“That day, I was the only one there. Not a woman, not a friend. Absolute solitude in death. I wouldn’t like to end like that,” he said.
Other funeral guests included actor Jean Dujardin as well as former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, who officiated at Hallyday’s last marriage.
The scale of the French adoration for him impressed even those who were not fans.
“I don’t know Johnny. But today is a rare opportunity to walk down the Champs-Elysees with no cars,” said Qiao Pin, a 27-year-old student from Beijing. “Now, I see he’s a very famous star. There’s no one that popular in China.”
Hallyday is expected to be buried in the French Caribbean island of St. Barts where he owned a house. He is survived by his wife Laeticia, two of his former wives, four children and three grandchildren.
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