[sic] Magazine

Does French music rock? A look at the French music industry.

France is famous for many things: cuisine, perfume, wine, philosophy and cheating at football to name but a few. But what of its music? France has the fifth largest music industry in the world and “listening to music” is often cited as one of the French’s favourite pastimes. Yet few outside her borders would believe it as many seem sceptical because of the immediate language barrier.

Perhaps for this reason, few contemporary French-language artists have managed commercial success outside of their own country. However, long-since current French-language artists have fared better in the past and to a certain extent continue to do so through recent film releases. Charles Aznavour , Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf : some of these names are familiar and inevitably some less so. So what gives?

National Identity & Quotas

There is little debate that music is a powerful tool when it comes to national identity. Classical and folk music are often regarded as genres that support national identity being, by definition, product of a nation’s history. Just as the Blues sprung from a specific set of social circumstances in the United States, so does France have a folk music pedigree set in its own rich history. Its storytelling quality is due to its pedalling by touring minstrels and court troubadours throughout the ages.

After WW2, Europe’s population grew and the attitudes of the French youth changed. A more globally-minded generation arose. And in light of this and because of a surfeit of Anglo-American music, the French government put in place the “Pelchat amendment” in order to try and help preserve the French language and French culture from a perceived “coca-colonisation”.

Françoise Hardy

As a result, even today, all French radio stations are required to play a minimum of 40% French-language songs. This minimum was meant to ensure that French culture remained a dominant force, at least within her own borders, but the amendment initially backfired. Few commercially-minded radio stations were prepared to gamble on the popularity of emerging French talent and as such stuck to tried and tested artists like the evergreen Françoise Hardy . Realising this, a revision to the amendment was made. Not only must the stations now play 40% French-language songs, but 20% of the total songs broadcast must showcase emerging French talent.

Rap, Hip Hop & Reggae

In 1995, in reaction to the new system of quotas, the French radio station Skyrock altered its playlists dramatically, seemingly gambling its future success on French rap music. As a happy result, its audience increased and sales of French rap duly skyrocketed. French rap and hip-hop remain remarkably successful areas of French sales; IAM and MC Solaar have been large domestic unit-shifters since the early 90s. Yet, these two and many others have not sold well outside of French-speaking countries, whereas Anglo-American rap acts, such as Jay-Z for example, continue to enjoy worldwide success including in France. Inevitably, this one-way traffic causes a certain friction. Why do English-speaking artists generally fare better in terms of sales in France than vice versa?

MC Solaar

Some of these sales have a possible explanation. Music of predominantly black origin seems better received in France than that which isn’t. If we permit a little generalising, most commercial American rap and hip-hop originates from none-affluent black musicians. Similarly, Reggae, the Blues and Jazz are historically produced by those of black persuasion and all continue to be held in regard in many French households.

The notoriously anti-American stance that many French hold is likely bred from a fear of cultural attack. Just as large swathes of the world regard French popular culture with suspicion, so do many French regard most things American. American rap and hip-hop perhaps seem more acceptable to the French because they are less strong examples of American power and capitalism. It’s an extrapolation based not in racism, and rather in culturism. Either way, if true, it’s a flawed argument as wanting to sell as many units as possible seems key to popular music and an inherently capitalist driver therefore.


Culture is often passionately and rightly defended. However, when faced with a wave of imports this can lead to misguided elitism. It is widely reported that when confronted with Elvis , some sections of the conservative French population dismissed it along with the great American rock ‘n’ roll explosion as merely a “distraction”. In line with their strong beliefs on national identity, more acceptable French equivalents such as Johnny Hallyday were championed instead. And this example is not alone.

Johnny Hallyday

Rather than completely accept the hugely popular Nirvana , French record labels strove to launch a French version of the band. During the 1960s, many popular English-language songs were translated and rerecorded by French artists before release. What better example that Claude François ‘s “C’est La Même Chanson”, which was amusingly and originally recorded under the title “It’s The Same Old Song”?


Does French Music Rock?

In 2001 a British newspaper claimed that, “French is a language that just does not rock”. For a long time this claim contained some truth. The first band to sign to Rough Trade was French, but who remembers Métal Urbain ? And for a time the French managed to successfully export electronic acts such as Air , Daft Punk and more recently M83 . These sold well abroad and at home, but they didn’t rock. Perhaps their success was due to the fact that, unfortunately for the French, these acts recorded in English, or without a vocal at all.

Métal Urbain

Despite the above claim, it is becoming increasingly evident however that French rock music is currently rather healthy indeed. Has it now finally come to gain its place as an acceptable source of French culture and stand against Anglo-American dominance, against what the V2 record label called “the welter of world music, hip-hop and wall-to-wall Vanessa Paradis that has for so long gripped the minds of this supposedly intellectually superior country (France)?”

Certainly, French rock’s stock has been on the rise for a good while. The 2003 French-language album Loin De L’Isle by Kaolin for example is a Pixies -tackling-post-punk romp, The hugely successful pop-rock act Kyo served that genre well in the same year and their singles from the album Le Chemin could easily have nestled in the lower end of an English top 40, even in their natural French. If France were more willing to promote these kinds of acts abroad, their strength as a music-producing nation would surely be bolstered.

Unfortunately for France though, most bands in the rock genre, be them French or otherwise, choose to express themselves in the English language. Versailles-based pop-rockers Phoenix achieved reasonable English chart success, first with the English-language single “Run Run Run” from the 2004 album Alphabetical, and more recently with 2009’s well-received Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. English appears as ubiquitous to rock music as French does to one of its equivalents “Yéyé” (so named because of the frequent “yeahs” in the rock ‘n’ roll aping lyrics).


Rock music is definitely popular in France as the continued sales of the French-language stalwarts Téléphone , Noir Désir and Indochine prove. Yet surely to the horror of French culture ministers and government elitists, it appears that current French music does still rock, but just not generally in French. This should of course not be a problem, but with showcase compilations over the last five years such as Le Nouveau Rock ‘n’ Roll Français and Paris Is Burning having mostly been recorded in English, it may be causing unnecessary worry. Do the fine artists on these compilations represent a modern France? The featured tracks and bands certainly have the potential to sell abroad, but as they’re mostly sung in English, they appear to have little backing. It would be sad to think modern French rock has to be recorded in French to be seen as valid.


It is an established fact that a large proportion of commercially-successful, modern rock artists in France are English-speaking. What is in interesting to note is that these same Anglo-American acts are more than capable of producing tracks in the French language when they feel the urge. Usually this comes after having had success in the country and presumably therefore wanting to give something back to their fans.

This is true of Placebo who released the track “Protège Moi” to accompany their Best Of, and Melissa Auf der Maur released a French-language version of her 2004 single “Taste You” where only the chorus remained in English. Rock giant Iggy Pop even undertook a predominantly French-language album of chanson in 2009 called Préliminaires. When Anglo-American artists are capable of producing equally good “French” rock songs as the French themselves, the inward-looking amongst them must be sitting uncomfortably indeed.

The Present

Britain is no less proud of Placebo for recording a track in French than if they hadn’t and it seems that France ought really to follow suit. The 2010 post-punk of Yeti Lane continues France’s excellent tradition of music, as have Air and Daft Punk, as do a new generation of French artists. On the Paris Is Burning compilation, The Rolls had killer hooks, and on the older Le Nouveau Rock ‘n’ Roll Français, “Guinea Pig Killer” by The Cheeraks comes across favourably like a Gallic Mclusky . “I Need Somebody Else (To Love)” by Men In The Moon extends 60s rock ‘n’ roll traditions. AS Dragon ‘s “Spank On Me” from the album Spanked sounds like (m)any of the urchin-punk bands that have emerged from the London scene over the past decade.

The Plasticines

Newer still, The Plasticines ‘ enviable pop-punk is finally getting noticed thanks to their pretty faces and recent aligning with The Strokes ‘ catalogue. The trendy electro-pop of The Shoes is sure to impact 2010, just as The Teenagers did over the last 18 months. The Underground Railroad and Nelson both have credible rock records under their belts and Asyl ought to have had greater recognition for their work to date. Poni Hoax ‘s electro-cum-post-punk is an intriguing proposition and, further back in time, the sunny indie of Elista is warmly familiar. Alongside more traditional French-language acts such as Cali , these talents should all be standing testament to France’s musical prowess.


Rightly or wrongly, introspective policies have at times left France as a cultural island. Since 1945, France and the Anglo-American world have developed more or less in line. The two have no doubt fed from one another’s plates and greater reciprocality in the future could further benefit the cultural output of both powerhouses. By steadily releasing great pop, rock, dance and other records onto the worldwide scene, Anglo-America may force a rethink of French marketing policy. By matching their contemporaries blow for blow, French musicians may succeed in bringing the move about more quickly and do their and their nation’s reputation no harm in the process.


France is ultimately what it is because of how it is and really we wouldn’t want it any other way. For now, be grateful that isolation breeds development and long may interesting results arrive from Gallic shores. Interestingly to finish, it is reported that many of the bands on the showcase compilations mentioned above were asked to record in French by their labels but refused. If rock is indeed struggling in France, it would appear the punk spirit nevertheless lives on.