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France says goodbye to Johnny Hallyday

media Pallbearers load the coffin of French singer Johnny Hallyday into a waiting hearse following the funeral services at the Madeleine Church, in Paris on 9 December, 2017. Reuters/Thibault Camus/Pool

France paid an emotional farewell Saturday to Johnny Hallyday -- the singer who taught the country how to rock -- in a highly theatrical "people's tribute" that brought Paris to a standstill.

Tens of thousands of people lined the Champs Elysees to watch his white coffin, escorted by some 700 bikers, descend the great ceremonial avenue in what was a state funeral in all but name.

Bikers ride on the Champs Elysees avenue during a 'popular tribute' to late French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday in Paris. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Bikers ride on the Champs Elysees avenue during a 'popular tribute' to late French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday in Paris. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Diehard fans of the leather-clad "French Elvis" began to gather overnight in the centre of the French capital for an outpouring of emotion for a singer not seen since the death of Edith Piaf.

A photo of Johnny Hallyday hangs outside La Madeleine Church in Paris on 9 December 2017. Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

As the huge cortege paused in front of the grand Madeleine church where French President Emmanuel Macron waited on the steps with the singer's family, the throng -- many in tears -- began chanting over and over, "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny Hallyday".

Fans attend the funeral ceremony for the late French singer Johnny Hallyday outside the Madeleine church in Paris. Reuters/Thibault Camus/Pool

"He was part of us, part of France"

"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 added.

Hallyday, once condemned as the rock 'n' roll "corrupter of youth" who went on to become a very French cultural icon, died of lung cancer on Wednesday.

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.

Commuters walk past a sign which reads, "DUROCK Johnny" on the wall of Duroc metro station in Paris. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

The Eiffel Tower has also lit up with the message, "Merci Johnny".

"Thank you Johnny" on the Eiffel Tower in Paris on 8 December, 2017 Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

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.

French ‘Elvis’

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.

"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.

One fan, Francois Le Lay, told French news agency 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."

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