A History of France in EurovisionThis is a history of France in the contest! We know the stereotype of the woman-ballad entry from France but Jessy Matador, Sébastien Tellier or Anggun have proven that there was more to France than the archetype. But it’s rooted deep in French history that there are two sides battling for the leadership for France. See here why and how! This article was first published on the 2nd of July 2012.
This preface is here to explain why I decided to write this little history of French entries in the contest known as “Eurovision Song Contest” (ESC). First of all, I take pride in writing a long and more or less objective article of my thoughts and analysis of the edition we just witnessed, which includes at last my final rankings for it. However, in order to write it, I needed time to watch and rewatch the competition with all the lives again ; more importantly, I needed the split results which took the longest time to be revealed this year . With them, a lot of surprises came and I also needed time to do some math.
But the 2012 edition not yet closed was not the only reason that pushed me. I witnessed again this year some of the worst aspects of Internet fans: the insult that comes the most often and of which I have myself been very often accused of, is the one that implies one is biased towards one’s own country. Because you know the history behind it, understand the language, followed its selection, you end up getting to know the song better and, supposedly, like it better. I beg to differ on that but I do agree that our own songs are the ones we’re actually the least able to rank fairly. Some of them we love (I’m French and grew up in a country that still beloves Marie-Myriam and holds her song as the best entry we ever sent to ESC, how can I not love it?) but some of them we hate (many of my Finnish friends hate many of their own songs, but then they grew up hearing that they were the worst ESC country so they tend to rank most of their entries unfairly, and unfairly adore Lordi back). It’s harder to be fair and yes there is some unconscious element at play. But we’re not here to do each others’ psychoanalysis. If someone says: hey I try to be fair here and this is my choice, we have to respect that most of all.
So I decided that, after all, maybe I am not as fair as I should be with France, but there are very good reasons behind it. By sharing all I know with the French selection process, but also many actual factual or cultural elements that might not be known to many fellow ESC fans who are not French. You can see things with a new perspective and help your judgment of many of these entries.
When it comes to dealing with the French songs, people have a very specific ideal in mind, the woman ballad. She’s alone on stage, she sings her guts out, and it’s mostly about love or peace. People complain that France tried that too often and they tend to forget France tends to do awful when it tries something else. Has it often tried something else? Very, just look at our 2007-2012 run and notice that only one of these entries fit the criteria. And look at the fact that it’s the only one that reached the top 10 too. If you extend the analysis all the way to the introduction of the full televoting in 98, France reached the top 10 three times, coming twice within the top 5. All three were the “woman ballad” type (in France, we call it “celine-dion-entry”). Something seems fishy in that France nowadays seems to refuse the genre that people hate and yet love to see us sending. The duality here is actually rooted deeper in the French history at Eurovision. From modernity to tradition, from one channel to another, from internal selection to televoting, everytime France is facing a Eurovision decision, it’s split between what it wants to do and what it knows to do.
I have decided to show you the history in three phases, evidently cut: 1956-1981, 1983-1997 and 1998-2012. You’re going to think “yeah I can see how the results influence this decision” but think again! Actually three channels took part in ESC for France and these are their periods. Now you already think “oh god it matches their results” and obviously you can see that yes indeed, each time we move from one channel to another, we tend to do a bit worse each time.
I. TF1’s golden era (1956-1981)
France joined the contest when it was created; it even was at the center of the decision to create a contest, just when the ECSC (The European Coal and Steel Community) was put together and evidently the 6 ECSC members would take part in the first Eurovision, only joined by Switzerland, who never joined the ECSC, EEC or now EU. The next countries to join ESC, the United-Kingdom and Denmark will be part of the second wave to join the now EEC in 1973: no doubts that the ESC and the building of a new Europe were linked, and France at the decision core of this all wanted to play a very important role. At the time, there was only one national channel and it was in charge of the contest.
I.1. 1956-1966: power to the tradition
For the first contest, two entries could be sent. France decided to send two very different entries, an uptempo modern tune with a young artist, and a melodramatic old fashion ballad by someone with more experience. Without any actual results, no one knows what the juries liked more, but the victory of Lys Assia’s “Refrain” decided that ESC would be a grand old fashion type of contest (even though we now have very good reasons to doubt the truthfulness and fairness of that victory). France did try to compromise the next year sending one of its most famous stars at the moment with a ballad that did have some twist in it. The second place was comforting (still in the top 10 of France’s best placings ever, with 5 victories and 4 runner-ups among which 1957’s “La Belle amour”, which by the way is already a twist in itself as this title is grammatically wrong in French) but the victory of an even more grandesque old fashion song decided for good that France would stick to such type of entries as well.
In 1958, France also changed its regime (yes, again!) After the “failure” of the Fourth Republic in dealing with the Algerian Independence War (1954-1962) and the successive falls of our governments due to the Parliamentary regime, France called upon general De Gaulle, savior of France during World War II, who had rejected French politics because he hated the Fourth Republic installed in 1947, quite similar to the Third Republic (1870-1940) that lost the war. De Gaulle was a symbol of both tradition back in place and a significant change to a new regime. The Fifth Republic was very different for it gave more power to the Executive branch than the Legislative one. New for France, yet old at the same time because it made the Left comment that the Fifth Republic would “help to elect a king” and indeed the strong Presidential power can be seen as such: as if France was proud to have beheaded a king just so it could elect a new one. De Gaulle was fond of Europe but not so much of the USA and the fact that France should transfer any of its powers to NATO or the UN. He even made France leave NATO in 1966 (and that’s the end of our period). Through that time period, he wanted France as a strong power and therefore the country was given all the capacity to do well in Eurovision. Under De Gaulle, France would win 3 times, almost 4 (De Gaulle retired in 1969 but more on that later).
And 58 was the first of these wins, a very old fashion grand ballad sung by one of our most beloved ballad singers. In 1959 and 1961 France did try some more upbeat tunes with quite some success (respectively 3rd and 4th) but as France won with two more ballads, this time by women, in 1960 and 1962 there was no doubt that Europe wanted us to “charm” them with our stereotypical “Paris city of love” and all that. So in 1963, 1964 and 1965 we sent just that and finished 5th, 4th and 3rd respectively. France never left the top 5! To be fair, almost all of the 1960-1965 entries are still known to people, especially “Elle était si jolie” and “N’avoue jamais” (more than our winners). A very funny example of that is 1960. The song was actually meant for a man to sing, but the “good pal who mocks his seducer playboy friend” song was changed last minute to be “the naïve girl who falls for the seducer playboy friend”. I doubt the song would have won without Jacqueline Boyer’s amazing performance in the role.
Also interesting is France’s choices to host. It won three times and hosted twice, refusing to do it a third time so quickly again. Cannes and the grandesque of the cinema festival was chosen both times. Jacqueline Joubert, the queen of the genre, chosen to do it. The “garden on stage” was a triumph of over-the-top in 1961. Eurovision kept growing reaching 18 entries in 1965 but none of that stopped France from achieving great results. Are they fair? France is the biggest and most important country in French-speaking Europe. With secured points from Monaco, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, it would have hardly missed the top 5 (many people forget that the unfair vote, before being “Eastern blocs” in the 00s and English-speaking of the 90s were the French-speaking ones in the 60s). But all of that would come to an abrupt and shocking end in 1966.
In the internal selection that France would host each year (leaving their runner-ups often to Luxembourg or Monaco when they were too lazy to pick an entry, as would confess Sophie Garel recently when picked to represent Luxembourg in 1968: she had never sung live or in public before and was chose “just so that we don’t win it”), in 1966, the jury reached a tie between the grandesque woman ballad “Ton nom” by no other than France’s biggest international star at the time, Mireille Matthieu, who performed at Paris liberation with De Gaulle back in summer 1944, and a totally unknown singer singing some modernized version of a sweet ballad. The 60s brought new music forms, genres, styles. In France, modernity was characterized by what we called “yéyé”. Some of the biggest names in yéyé would have never dared to do Eurovision, but one did in 1963, Françoise Hardy for Monaco finishing at a respectable 5th. . However, the whole new stars that France adored were France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg. And France failed at sending them at Eurovision and it was Luxembourg that picked that one up (let’s remember that Napoli’s orchestra booed the modern composition, failing at seeing how amazing it was). Also, some other names like Dalida or Rika Zaraï were systematically reprising ESC entries, Dalida the Italian ones, Rika the Spanish ones (and later on the Israeli ones) and each time in some more modern and upbeat style. So the jury ended up chosing the more modern entry, “Chez nous” instead of Mireille Matthieu. France came 16th out of 18 with only 1pt, given to us by Monaco. Without the unfair French-speaking bloc, France would have gotten last with nil point (let’s remember that France never came last nor ever got nil points, 1966 is therefore its worst entry ever on an objective note). That disaster ended ALL hesitation that France should, forever, send ballads and traditional songs. It would still be 14 years until France would finally send a group to ESC (in 1980).
I.2. 1967-1974: back on track?
After the fiasco that sent France from its usual top 5 placing to the bottom 3, France did not hesitate to give in to whatever simple slow ballad would come along in the selection. It even took Isabelle Aubret, our 1962 winner back, after her tragic accident (she got in a terrible car accident that disfigured her legs, since then she never showed her legs ever again and therefore her 1962 short dress performance is historical, in 68 she would have a longer dress), to secure a good placing. However, and even though 1967 is a good entry, 68 and 69 which are nowadays regarded as some of the best ever esc entries all together, were not “old fashioned” but simply universal. I’m still sad juries failed to see 68 that way, but 69 did snatch a fair victory, even if it was shared. So 3rd, 3rd and finally a win, and then 4th in the very odd 1970 contest. But that was the end of it. Two major events would change the face of French entries.
First the actual contest was changing, Sandie, Massiel, Lulu or Dana were very different type of winners, both in character and in the songs they won with. Furthermore, 1970 marked a very rough year for the contest, when it could have disappeared if some major changes were not made: groups and backings were introduced as well as a new voting system (it would have to wait until 1975 to find one that fit, but that came from that same troubled period), color television,a bigger show with new comers again and even the introduction of English which would be tried then. In short: everything was different. France could not still pretend to do well playing with the old formula. Nevertheless, France also had a major break down in 1968: the “Revolution” of May 1968 when for an entire month France went on strike, the red flag was brought on Bastille’s plaza and De Gaulle was asked to retire by the youth. In that period, the “French New Wave” in cinema was also given International praise and France seemed to be a very modern cultural country with its literature (Camus, Saint John Perse or Sartre received the Nobel respectively in 57, 60 and 64). But De Gaulle stayed, however, his power had shifted and people wanted the new modern France to finally come together. Already, Eurovision seemed old fashion to France’s youth and sending Serge, Betty or Martine would definitely not reconcile them with ESC. These three entries, though all of them are pretty well written in what they try to do (lyrics wise they’re really good actually), were probably the most old fashion entries in their years concerning their performance. And they came 10th, 11th and finally 16th again! This time something was not working especially since Monaco and Luxembourg had won these contests! De Gaulle had retired in 1969 after a referendum he had lost. His prime minister from before 1968, George Pompidou won the election by a landslide and it seemed sure that old France was yet back on track, that nothing had come out of 68.
In 1974, the irony is cruel: France had finally given someone very new a chance. Dani is still quite famous in France, she did have some very rock years and then she went into drug, rehab and got some hits lately reprising her older song “Comme un boomerang”, written by Serge Gainsbourg (yes him again, I’ll discuss him at length when 1990 will come along). Her 1974 song was actually celebrating youth and its hedonistic ideals “La vie à 25 ans” (“Life When You’re 25“) with some cheeky lyrics. But Pompidou, who has become more and more of a defender of the modern (the Paris Museum of Modern Art at Beaubourg holds now his name after he was the one who signed the decision to build it), died on April 1st 1974 (revealed the next day so that people don’t think it’s an April’s Fool news) and France retired from Eurovision to mourn. The symbol was indeed cruel for Dani. Especially in the contest that would see modernity triumph in Eurovision with ABBA!
I.3. 1975-1981: the last triumphs of the unique channel
After the first contest missed by France and the election of the center-right and the president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing considered “young and modern”, France would have 7 amazing years with 6 top 4 finishes and one 11th place, with its only try at modern and uptempo (well by now you should be going “well of course”). In 1975, France first wanted to give Dani a second go, that’s when Serge Gainsbourg wrote “Comme un boomerang” for her, but considered too sexual (the boomerang movement… don’t forget what songs Gainsbourg wrote for France Gall, Brigitte Bardot or Jane Birkin) it was rejected at the benefit of Nicole Rieu and her crystal voice, who sang a song about the power of art. Dani would reprise “Comme un boomerang” in the 00s with Etienne Daho and reach #1 in the charts! Nicole Rieu yet still did well coming 4th. In 1976, for once France sent an uptempo song and the bookies had us going down like ten years earlier in 1966. Concerning the lyrics, usually a strong point of French entries in Eurovision, but seriously troubled since the introduction of English, got this time around elements as the sillyness of “1, 2, 3”, some “la la la” and for the first time ever in a French entry the actual phrase “je t’aime” was uttered! But Catherine Ferry surprised everyone in rehearsal with a very old fashion performance and the electro bits changed to violin parts. The result? The second place (our second), and to this day France’s biggest score points wise at 147pts (Amina will come close at 146, missing one point to match Catherine Ferry and beat Carola; Natasha also in 2001 will not do too bad at 142). The actual symbol is to be found in her backings: on the left is Daniel Balavoine, a star of the rebellious youth in the 80s who would die in a motorcycle accident. He represented the rebellious Johnny Rockfort in the Starmania musical, co-starring… France Gall! In 1977, the next victory came along with a rather fast song and with the slower parts being sung a capella by 18 years old and totally unknown Marie Myriam. The next day of her victory, every schoolboy and schoolgirl were singing the peace hymn and it became instantly an evergreen here.
In 1978, Paris was finally going to host the contest. Denise Fabre was associated to Léon Zitrone, specialist of the gala, crowning and other festive type of events, both were already old and had a long career behind them. The pink, the sparkling, the spoon-orchestra, everything was supposed to match the contradiction, the old and the new meets in France’s Eurovision! Even the song France sent that year was all about that: the lyrics are about a man telling his girlfriend that she can ask for all she wants in this modern age, to wear pants (even jeans!) or “to do the Revolution” (if that’s not a call for modernity) but then the chorus says “but there’ll always be violins playing that same old song” and that’s basically the summary to all of French entries! Still, he came 3rd behind the disco modern entry of Israel and the very old fashion ballad (at the piano then standing up gig) of Belgium: two songs sticking to their genre. In 1979, France tried its best. This song is one of the most beloved by all of my ESC friends around the Internet who all have it down as the winner of 79 and in their all time top, I think. True, it’s one of the only two songs which was written, composed and performed by an ESC winner without winning the contest! The other one, “Terminal 3” has the same man who wrote and composed it. “Je suis l’enfant soleil” was composed by Eddy Marnay (France 69), written by Hubert Giraud (France 58) and performed by Anne-Marie David (Luxembourg 73) and it was beat by two “momentary songs”: Israel was singing “Hallelujah” after the peace treaty with Egypt had been signed at Camp David and Spain was dedicating a song to UNESCO’s “year of children”.
So France wanted a piece of its own modernity and for the first time sent a group. While the song is indeed our weakest in many years, I do believe that it actually was before its time. In the 80s, Profil’s song would have probably reached the top 10. It actually got points from almost everybody, but almost never above a 4 and thus ended up 11th. So after this one last try of modernity which still would not bring any success (a big ballad won the contest each time), France sent its own ballad by the team (Cara-Gracy) behind the 1977 victory with a new singer: Jean Gabilou from our Antilles. He came 3rd but this time the winner was a very modern twist entry! France keept getting it wrong! However, 1981 marked what must be one of the biggest and major dates of modern French history: the return to power of the Socialists which would mark the end of the one-channel TV.
II. France 2’s success stays victoryless!
It is time to focus on the history of our channels. One channel since the introduction of TV still reigned in France, whatever its name (RDF Télévision française, RTF after 1963, ORTF after 1964). However, in 1963 a second national channel was created. For twelve years, two channels share the ORTF frequency, and in 1975 they officially split leaving room for TF1 and Antenne 2 (1975-1992 when the channel will be renamed France 2) and the creation then of France Régions 3 (1974-1992, renamed France 3). When the Left took power in 1981 for the first time since the introduction of the Fifth Republic, they made no secret that one of them would be privatized and the other one would be stay national but split. In 1984, the Fourth channel Canal + was created, very modern, directed towards the youth, the politically incorrect, lefty. In 1987 TF1 was finally privatized. In order to get all that together, France withdrew from Eurovision 1982 (the second and last contest missed by France). TF1 said that it had more serious business to attend to than this “old fashioned” contest (proof if needed that TF1 did get amazing results but had missed the turn to modernity that the contest was about to take as soon as 1984). Antenne 2 was finally given the green light in 1983 and it took the contest in its hands. Two phases in this period are obviously notable, one when Antenne 2 would play the old-fashion TF1 card, marked by a run of rather poor results, but not insanely bad either) and then one when France 2 will try very hard to modernize the contest and will get amazing results but, staying victoryless, will finally give up all together.
II.1. 1983-1989: still battling with the new contest
Totally new to the contest, Antenne 2 would not dare to make a lot of choices that would be too extreme. In 1983 they called a former performer (as usual when France is looking for a good solution (1968, 1979, the returning artists are actually very few for France)) and Guy Bonnet, the 1970 French performer (but also the composer of “La Source”!), was back with his piano. His song, against the death penalty, was definitely a sign of the Left being in power as the abolition of the death penalty was the symbolic first decision made by the new President François Mitterrand. In 1984 and 1985, newcomers were given a chance at the contest, but both performed rather beige ballads however with a lot of heart. 8th, 8th and 10th were not that bad for a new channel in charge, but it did miss the flavor of battling for victory that the 75-81 era had got us used to. So in 1986 a girl band dressed all in “punk” were given a go at it, after all, Sweden and Norway had been victorious in such style before. The terrible result made them rush back to a very traditional entry in 1987, that was not just beige but tastelessly bad. Another disappointing result, but Luxembourg gave it 12 (it’s very significant, as Luxembourg will give 0 to every song of France in the 90s that would try to be modern). It seems that the one daring Luxembourg was now the one sticking to its old fashion ideals of Eurovision, as seen in their 1983 victory. Once the contest will take the modern turn for good in the 90s, Luxembourg won’t even try to participate anymore when France will manage to keep on track.
In 1988, an old star trying a comeback, Gérard Lenormand was given a go, he brought back a top 10 result but still very disappointing considering it was Johnny Logan’s comeback that got noticed in Eurovision. In 1989 the innovation came from a jazzy tune which had supposedly daring lyrics on vagabond life with a very young artist. Odd enough to bring another top 10 result, but nothing too convincing. Something was not working. France, like some countries, were managing ok results but was far from its usual shape. Marie-France Brière got appointed to the head of the entertainment section of Antenne 2. She looked at the bad results, at the type of entries we sent, of which none ever reached the top 5, and said it was all pointless and asked for France to leave the contest. In the 80s groups like Téléphone, Noir Désir or Indochine were at the top. But no one would ever consider one of these rock groups to represent France. Something was broken between Eurovision and our music industry. Changing things around would be one of the best decision ever made by France in its ESC history.
II.2. 1990-1997: France at its best
Antenne 2 asks Mrs. Brière to reconsider. She accepted at the condition that she gets complete charge of our entries and it was given to her. She said that France in ESC should be a possibility of throwing the light on what is best in our music industry, to help it develop as well. A similar decision would be made with the success we all applaud in Estonia in 2009. Who Mrs. Brière calls for help, if not the one man behind all the modern tunes for France in ESC, Serge Gainsbourg! In order for you to understand, Gainsbourg died right after this of a heart attack. He was constantly drunk and smoking (and not just tobacco) on tv. He’s an icon of being the revolutionary bad guy and he’s still adored by French youth as a great poet for his lyrics and an icon of rebellion. In the 80s he got famous for telling Whitney Houston he wanted to F*** her, live on tv, and in English so she could understand! A huge womanizer, he was perfect to write a song for Joëlle Ursull, star of the Antilles trio Zouk Machine who was launching a solo career at the time. He wrote “Black Lolita Blues” for her but she thought the song had misjudged what it meant to be black for France in the 90s. He rewrote it into “White and Black Blues” which she performed with a lot of gut. Called “dynamite in ESC”, it stormed 2nd after dividing the juries. The song with the most 12pts that year (five in total, mostly from Scandinavia and Finland and Switzerland), it also got the most “0 points” of the top 5!
In 1991, two songs were at the heart of the decision, Mylène Farmer (the French gay icon, still very famous and loved in France) with “Désenchantée” or Amina. After the great success of Joëlle Ursull, Mrs. Brière said that modernity in esc was to encourage new style, new genre. She decided to therefore go with Amina, who came second but joint first in points, to a very 80s old fashion track, which got Mrs. Brière furious. Would Mylène Farmer have done better? Everyone here thinks so but we’ll never know. For 1992 she held an international contest where all French-speaking countries and regions could take part. A singer from Polynesia got the ticket and reggae got its first go from France at Eurovision (though reggae had been around and even Finland had tried it, when France was still into its ballads). The result was still there :8th, and some 12s (the third 12 from Switzerland in a row). After this, France gave Corsica a go, opening the field to a wider range of styles. Even though the song earned a 4th place, probably due to the fact it managed to mix the Corsican folklore to something more, I want to say bland, but politely I’ll say, mainstream, it seemed that this core of entries was getting nowhere. And in 1994, something extremely modern was sent, in style, look, song-wise (the cat’s moaning, also the song features a curse word, the first in Eurovision?) and Nina Morato had been awarded “Best Newcomer” in the French Music Awards just weeks before. “The Woman in the hat” as she was known reached a good 7th earning most of its points from Eastern European countries (10 from Russia)! But old Europe was giving its crown for the third time to an Irish ballad and France was wondering if conquering great results with modern songs was better than giving in to the trend to finally bring a 6th victory.
In 1995, just when France gave up its folk trend to send something more mainstream, Norway wins with a New Age entry. I do think that France was way before its time in 1990 and 1991 but then other countries came in and finally made that new trend a key to victory when France missed its chance. 4th in 1995 with a good typical entry, especially well performed considering the song did lack some oomph, France returned to its folk trend after “Nocturne” had won it. But alas, 1996 was the year that saw the triumph of folk, ethnic, Celtic and other entries like that. Eimear Quinn said she was shocked France did not win and she herself reprised “Diwanit Bugale”, in Breton, probably the most authentic Celtic entry of the year, but totally disregarded (look at the scoreboard, every country giving points to France are the ones ignoring Ireland the most). In 1997, the return to a ballad, quite minimalist in style, gave another great result 7th but points wise, as much as in 1995 with three 12 (Estonia, Norway… the same ones as usual really). But by then Mrs. Brière was tired of this contest that was refusing her. More importantly, France had found a new way to cherish its cultural victories…
III. France 3 stays trapped of stereotypes (1998-2012)
In 1992, the Olympique de Marseille won the football Champion’s League. The following years, Limoges would do the same in basketball and in 1995, for the first time ever, a French national team would win the World Cup, in handball. Already in football, France came in semifinal in 1982 and 1986 at the World Cup and won the European Cup in 1984 beating the host, Spain, in the final. France had reached the first ever final in the World Cup of rugby (and was getting ready to lose a second final in 1999). As you all know, 1998 is not only the year the results will start getting awful for France in ESC, the year when televoting is introduced, one year before the language rule is broken, or as you now know the year France 2 hands the contest over to France 3, but also the year that France, at home, won the World Cup in football. Two years later, France would also win its second European Cup. At home again in 2001, France took a second handball World Cup (our handball team is the best national team in France, as it won European Cups in 2006 and 2010, World Cup again in 2009 and 2011 and the Olympics in 2008), our basketball team lost the final at the Sydney’s Olympics to Team USA. Sport is where France has all its heart from then on. France 2 had either a rugby or Eurovision to broadcast in 1998 and chose rugby. The small France 3, supposedly national but dedicated to the local regions and not to a broader scale, got the right to broadcast Eurovision totally unannounced.
III.1. 1998-2004: finding an ESC identity
After Mitterrand’s second presidency ended in 1995, the Right came back into office. But in 1997 at the legislatives, to everyone’s shock and surprise, the Left won the Parliament over and president Jacques Chirac had to witness the Left in power a third time (previously they had been in power in 1981-1986 and 1988-1993, while 86-88 and 93-97 the Right was in power even though the president was socialist). The new Left wanted to grant more room for new channels while they fused all 5 channels together under a new name “France Télévisions” with France 2, France 3, France 5, Arte and France O. A sixth channel was brought into the free package, M6, dedicated to music, but later privatized. France 3, the small one, was in charge of Eurovision all together. So, deciding to follow France 2’s footsteps, they decide to send a very modern track. Now that’s very important, “Où aller?” remains a song I like to listen to, which I consider extremely contemporary and obviously a radio friendly song almost impossible to perform live due to its repetitiveness. But France 3 had everything to learn. We now know, especially with televoting, that a song can be “liked” by everyone but not receive a single vote. “Où aller?” did not get Romania’s unfair 6 from Israel (due to televoting incident), or Greece’s unfair 12 from Cyprus, or Slovakia’s unfair 8 from Croatia (for these three entries, the only points they’ll get!) and therefore will come one before last with 3pts, almost as bad and horrible as 1966 except that Cyprus and Macedonia gave us small points (help of the juries there?) So France 3 decided to do what it had not done since the 70s when Catherine Ferry and Marie-Myriam switched top 2 with the UK in the contest: They hosted a national final!
After all, why not? Every country or almost was doing one nowadays, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, UK, Ireland, Netherlands had old shows running that were popular, with high ratings and seemingly ending in good results. With the perspective of good broadcasting results and money income with televoting, a first national final was held. No one saw the victory of Nayah coming: her R’n’B wanna-be gospel-like ballad was put together pretty well, Nayah was vocally neat (though scary) and stylishly interesting. However, a scandal became known: She was part of Raëlism, a sect that believes in UFOs. People kept mocking the “UFO that will land in Jerusalem for Eurovision” in France Overall the entry just seemed dated and without an actual entity. The result were 14pts, half of them coming, again, from Norway. In 2000, another national final turned into a three-horse-race between two brothers, Orijin, singing some rap and hip-hop entry, Jessica Ferley was singing a big ballad, “Espoir” (Hope, yes just that) and Sofia Mestari was singing the entre-deux (in between the two) song. As usual, the one that tries to do both at once won it after the other two entries cancelled each other out. Sofia Mestari was very nervous on the Eurovision stage, after all her hard work was pointed out by other singers in Stockholm (but she was a total amateur) and the song was totally lost in the competition. Again, probably, no one’s last or worst entry (come on, Israel or Macedonia must take that crown) but it ended up at in very low place: one-before-last, which we saw was our worst place ever. Something was not working right.
So France 3 decided to give up all that and selected the rising star Natasha Saint-Pierre internally and gave her a song written by J. Kapler, Jean-Jacques Goldman’s brother (the man responsible for the first album by Céline Dion). A Huge favorite, she finished 4th with 142pts, a very good result in this era of televoting, earning 12 from Lithuania, Bosnia, Portugal and 10 from Poland and Estonia… In 2002, the formula having worked, they sent another rising star: Sandrine François with this time a song co-written by Patrick Bruel, who is a 90s star and still very well perceived in France. The result was great yet again: 5th, with 12pts from Finland, 10 from Switzerland (the same countries always isn’t it). So they tried it again in 2003 with Louisa but this time, her “bad hair incident” as it’s called here cost her a lot of televotes and she got saved by 8 from Bosnia and 6 from Romania, two countries that used juries that year. The female-ballad was still working really well for France as proven, the modern entries had died and twice France got into the top 5. Louisa’s failure was seen as a one-time thing but the recent turn of events, with very modern shaky pop entries winning and the new era of TV with lots of reality shows and castings influenced France 3. Since the channel did not have any singing show except an old people’s noon show, they took M6 (a channel created only a few years before that, M standing for music!) “France Idol” winner, Jonatan Cerrada, half-Belgian, half-Spanish (two countries, with Monaco, who will give lots of points to France that year) was chosen to represent France in 2004 with a big show by some big reality TV show designer. The outcome was messy and odd, but the entry not insultingly bad and France still got a decent result. But France 3 did feel that the 2001-2002 touch was fading away and wanted to try to enter that new modernity evading us as well.
III.2. 2005-2007: last national finals
So they returned to the national final, mostly because viewing figures were dropping significantly (Had Natasha or Sandrine won, France would have been huge by now, but their failure to Estonia and Latvia, countries perceived as part of the “Eastern Bloc” was fatal to Eurovision in France). Small, different, alternative NFs were hosted in 2005, 2006 and 2007 to give newcomers a chance and bring all types of entries together. That old-people noon show struck yet again in 2006 though, as Virginie Pouchin who was a protégée of them., won the competition. In 2007, the 5 channels were brought together and each of them offered 2 entries in a 10-entries national final.The results for these three French Eurovision entries? Three bottom 5 results, with one-before-last and two-before-last results in 2005 and 2006. The songs were at best lame, if not simply awful, and the whole shows proved that France was completely disconnected to modern Eurovision. Bruno Berbérès was appointed head of delegation to change things around. He decided to bring France into the twenty-first century, and why not achieve a victory at last. He changed things around and started by giving up national finals for good which had not proven successful for France 3.
III.3. 2008-2012: the voice of alternative France
I’ve seen many people raise their voice to applaud France’s capacity to change style year after year. But when you look at it, in 2009 and 2011 the entries are very “classical” while 2008, 2010 and 2012 are shockingly modern, considering it’s France sending them. So France remains torn into 2 sides. But the choices are very daring. In 2008, France probably sent one of their best modern singers and while I adore Sébastien Tellier (who is incredibly popular here, and no one even remembers he did ESC here) I think “Divine” was the wrong choice. Probably sent because it was his catchiest, but repetitiveness never works in ESC. Still, the camera shots, the performance, the comedy that refuses to be a joke entry (in a year when Ireland, Czech Republic, Spain or Estonia were the mock of Europe), it was incredible and in a televote year, managed to not be last, getting points from all Nordic and all Baltic countries! In 2009, Patricia Kaas, a diva of worldwide fame was brought in. All of France was sure she was going to win and with almost 10 million viewing (almost a sixth of France’s population!) it was a disappointing outcome. Sure the draw was harsh, and this big stage with her all alone might have impacted the chances, but also the choice of a ballad, when Kaas could’ve sung a great jazzy uptempo entry was disappointing. But the juries saved us from humiliation with a fair 8th place (televote had us 17th).
In 2010, the modern track was an Americanized summery tune that refused to fall into the pop schlager category. France expected its first last place, but it came 12th with 82pts, actually being 8th and over 150pts in televote! In 2011, as a favorite, France tried to go “classical, universal, eternal” but Amaury’s amateurishness shone through a lot during the performance and the pompous entry did not win anyone over. Still the results were pretty nice, with Greece and Belgium giving it 12 and Spain 10, it ended with 82pts as well, but in 15th place. It seemed that France’s alternative entries, like the darkest ballad of the 2000s by Patricia Kaas and a pop tune by Jessy Matador was still able to reach some votes, either juries or televote. And France was fine with that. After all in sports, 2008 and 2010 were marked by two fiascos with our football team and though Beijing 2008 was great and handball was still going strong, France went back to other cultural grandeurs. In 2008 Le Clézio got the Nobel prize in literature while Laurent Cantet’s “Entre les murs” won the palme d’or unanimously from Sean Penn’s jury. Eurovision? Old-fashion, Eastern European, camp, over the top. Fun but not to take seriously. That’s how France trapped itself into “it’s better to be alternative and have fun with it, if we win at least we can be proud”. Refusing this, Bruno Berbérès tried a lot to copy the winning formulas around: he got himself very involved in MF (president of the international jury in 2009 and made France a regular jury there from then on) and tried to push our contestants to promote their entries: Eric Saade was invited to a show with Amaury in 2011, Anggun travelled all over Europe…
In 2012, Anggun signed a song that tried to be very modern, more gagaesque than schlager. After all, Jedward had come 8th the year before, and naked men seemed to always do well. A clip well designed, a dress by Jean-Paul Gaultier (who did Madonna in the 80s, Amina or Dana International’s dresses for Eurovision), Kamel was brought back (who did Jonatan Cerrada’s live) and everything was supposed to work out. The juries had it 13th with 85pts (three more than Jessy or Amaury, tied with Cyprus) but televote had it dead last with nil. France is definitely not ready to sell modern uptempo songs to Europe. Juries saved us once more from a fiasco.
What’s to come? In 2012, a second socialist President was elected under the Fifth Republic and for the fourth time the Left won the Parliament (after 10 years of the Right governing the country). Will that be enough to push France back on track or will Sweden’s victory comfort Bruno Berbérès into copying MF, knowing however that national finals never worked in France in the last 30 years?
To not leave 0n too sad a note, I created a list of what I consider the currently better artists that France has to offer. Would they do Eurovision? I’d say not a chance, but then Tellier did it. Would they do well? Who knows, it depends on the entries, the live, the dynamics of that esc’s edition. But they’re the ones France can proud itself of having (in parentheses, a song you can check on youtube):
- Daft Punk (of course “Around the World”, but by far our most reknown group),
- Woodkid (a designer, director, singer, musician… see “Iron” or “Run Boy Run”),
- Air (famously “Sexy Boy”),
- Justice (“D.A.N.C.E”),
- Sébastien Tellier (yes, why not again, see his latest “Pépito bleu”),
- Brigitte Fontaine (her latest “Prohibition” is so politically incorrect, love her),
- Wax Taylor ( “To Dry Up” would get my recommendation),
- Phoenix (“If I Ever Feel Better”),
- Cocoon (“Chupee” got them famous),
- Telepopmusik (I don’t see how “Breathe” would be performed live),
- St Germain (“Sure Thing” is so out there, brilliant),
- Nouvelle Vague (they mostly do reprise so I’m not sure, but check their “Don’t Go”),
- Charlotte Gainsbourg (why not send the daughter, check her “IRM” song),
- Dionysos (“Song for Jedi”),
- Emilie Simon (if we wanna stick to the young cute girl fomula, “Fleur de saison”),
- AaRON (“U-Turn (Lili)” rightfully put them in fame)
- Juliette Noureddine (huge live performer with amazing texts such as “Sur l’oreiller”),
- Shaka Ponk (some punk-rock like “How We Kill Stars”),
- Revolver (to stick to simple pop, “Get Around Town”),
- Caravane Palace (because gypsy jazz is what we do best “Jolie coquine”)
The full youtube playlist with these 20 songs right can be found right here.
Also, Camille (totally out there, different, I’m sure it would win some mock votes), M (who wrote “Triplets of Belleville” soundtrack, nominated at the Oscars), Thomas Dutronc (Françoise Hardy’s son), Olivia Ruiz… wouldn’t be bad at all, they just did not make the Top 20 cut, but I could see them with good entries.
So that’s that, a history and some hope for the future. Hope this helped you put things in a little perspective in the songs you have come to get accustomed to but that barely represent all there is in France, if any, most of them are unknown and irrelevant to our actual music history. But when you link things to the history of our channels or are recent cultural history, you see it all makes sense and I hope this will help you see the French entries the way I see them, the way I could be ashamed or enthusiast by them. It won’t change your taste, but it might help you understand them better. And I hope you enjoyed!