In Defense of Johnny Hallyday

A non-French reader now based in France has concluded that I am a Francophobe. Pas du tout! On opportunity-cost grounds, I may mildly regret the years I spent loading French, Latin, etc into my schoolboy brain (as opposed to Arabic, Chinese, etc), but that is hardly France's fault. Least of all is it the fault of the French singer whose box office appeal was established by the time I was learning the language and has spanned more decades than Bruce Springsteen's: the immortal Johnny Hallyday, shown in a previous post in folkloric (if unintentionally comic) outfit, thus:

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The reason I had involved Hallyday in the first place was to argue that Arizona's "show me your papers" immigration law seemed fundamentally Gallic/Napoleonic (or Chinese) in its inspiration, rather than American. That doesn't make me either anti-French or anti-Chinese. I like both places, as I like "the Elvis of France," Johnny H himself. But I do stand solidly with James Thurber, as previously quoted in saying that "je vais demander ses cartes d'identité!" is a French import we don't need. Here's the reader's complaint:

I've been sitting here, a casual francophile, in Sète, south of France, for a couple or three weeks steaming about your no-comment-necessary take-down of Johnny for dressing up as a cowboy, complete with wool Stetson, medallion, Rolex, and super-bowl ring.

What you may not understand is that Johnny never had a choice in the matter, not after Elvis first turned out for, what was it, Love Me Tender? If Elvis had played mostly carnival barkers or seal trainers Johnny would have had to dress up as one of those, no fault of his own. It was the career choice.
I don't see you snarking about Ricky Nelson playing a tough gunfighter named after a southwestern state or territory in Rio Bravo.

The way young Ricky sort of intensifies his smirk, squints his eyes, and tells John Wayne, "I don't want no trouble." And later does the famous Get Along Home Cindy Cindy cowboy folk duet with Dean Martin.

Look, here's what happened to you. When you go into a French establishment, a café or a restaurant or bakery, or even the post office or an information booth or the passport control, it's like you're going into someone's home. You greet the the proprietor or server when you go in, and you say goodbye when you leave. A lot of people even say goodbye to the other patrons when they leave, especially in a smaller restaurant. If you don't know that, they think you are a snot and treat you like one. [Evidemment! That's why I always say Bonjour madame etc in these settings.]

I'd never noticed it before, but here when you get on the municipal bus you pay your respects to the driver, and he pays them back to you, and he stops for you later if you happen to be running across the street gesturing desperately. Some people even yell goodbye up the aisle toward the driver when they get off at the back door, but they exaggerate.

These are the salt-of-the-earth Frenchmen who inadvertantly inspired in you an animadversion that extends even to their poor rock-stars. It should help you to know that very few of them will ever forgive Johnny Hallyday. Not the ones of our generation. Not after the way he treated Sylvie in 1966, the weasel. [Yes, a blow to us all.]
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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