PARIS: French music icon Johnny Hallyday died on Wednesday (Dec 6) aged 74 after a battle with lung cancer, plunging the country into mourning for a national treasure whose soft rock lit up the lives of three generations.
The leather-clad star broke from France's classic "chanson" tradition in the late 1950s, emerging as a figure who embodied the rebellious spirit of the post-war era.
While Americans were going wild for Elvis or Jimi Hendrix and Britain was gripped by Beatle-mania, France turned to the Paris-born crooner who borrowed liberally from his English-speaking peers.
While his power ballads never won acclaim outside the French-speaking world, he was adored at home and his death on Wednesday devastated fans and sparked an outpouring of grief from fellow artists and politicians.
"There is something of Johnny in all of us," said French President Emmanuel Macron in a pre-prepared statement issued half an hour after the announcement of his death by AFP at 2.44am (0144 GMT).
Macron, a fan seen at his concerts like numerous former French leaders, was among the first to react to the death which had been feared since he announced he was undergoing treatment for cancer in March.
Fans began gathering in the cold before dawn outside Hallyday's home in the small town of Marnes-la-Coquette west of Paris, as television channels cleared their regular programming for tribute shows and discussions about his influence.
"I rate him on the level of the Eiffel Tower," said Jose Albine, who was among the crowd and claimed to have been to "hundreds" of Johnny concerts.
The death of the five-times married millionaire, whose drug-taking and playboy lifestyle burnished his rocker image, prompted a country-wide bout of nostalgia for one of only a handful of unifying national entertainers.
"With such a long career he touched every generation," said Nicolas D'Auria, a 40-year-old decorator in central Paris who recalled listening to Hallyday on cassettes in the car on family holidays in his youth.
"I'm sure my uncle is crying in front of the television. I can imagine a national day of mourning," he told AFP after waking up to the news.
The French media was awash with tributes, with Le Figaro daily running the headline "France's last idol is gone" and the France 2 channel headlining "France wakes up a orphan."
The news presenters on the BFM channel wore black as a sign of respect.
'IDOLISED' BY FANS
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy - who once tried to tempt the man known universally as "Johnny" back from tax exile in Switzerland - said he represented "part of our personal history ... our memories and emotions".
From early on in a career that spanned five decades, Hallyday drove his fans wild, attracting 100,000 to a Paris square in 1963 and prompting scenes of hysteria until then unseen in a conservative France led by the stiff General Charles de Gaulle.
"He embodies the emergence of French youth culture and rock 'n' roll," said Serge Kaganski of the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles.
Born on Jun 15, 1943 to a Belgian father and French mother, the twinkly-eyed performer was brought up by his aunt and had little schooling before emerging as an entertainer while still in his teens.
He was born Jean-Philippe Smet but changed his name because, as he said himself, "it wasn't a very rock 'n' roll name".
He attempted suicide in 1966, collapsed on stage in 1986 and married five times - twice to the same woman, the daughter of one of his oldest friends and songwriters.
'HE IS FRANCE'
His death was announced by his 42-year-old wife Laeticia Hallyday who said in a statement to AFP that "Johnny Hallyday has left us."
"I write these words without believing them. But yet, it's true. My man is no longer with us," she said. "He left us tonight as he lived his whole life, with courage and dignity."
Tributes poured in from fellow entertainers Celine Dion and Lenny Kravitz, as well as French politicians of all stripes and the president of the European Commission, former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker.
"Johnny is a monument. He is France," said famed French actress Brigitte Bardot - a fellow icon of the post-war era.
Reaction outside of France was one of bafflement as many people discovered the man widely described as the "French Elvis" for the first time.
"My international career? It'll happen if it happens," Hallyday once told AFP. "But I don't specially want to succeed elsewhere. It's better to be king in one's own country than a prince elsewhere."
Rumours about Hallyday's health had been swirling in recent weeks after he was admitted to hospital in Paris with breathing problems.
He spent six days under medical care before returning to rest at home.
Some fans had in the past week told French media they were so upset at the news of his deteriorating health they could not bear to listen to his songs.