12 Famous French Singers, past and present

12 Famous French Singers, past and present

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You may remember some of the biggest names in French music, but how many French singers can you name that are truly popular in their home country? To help you, we’ve picked out some famous French singers that made an impact in France, from the past and the present.  

We’ve also included links to some essential songs to help you discover the artists and try new, fun ways of practising the French language.

Authentic French music legends

French singers often enjoy long careers in their homeland. We kick off this list with some giants of French music whose legacies spanned multiple generations.  

France Gall

Essential album: 1968

Signature song: Ella, elle l’a

Adopting the name of her home nation, Isabelle Geneviève Marie Anne Gall, enjoyed a stellar career propelled by a Eurovision win for……Luxembourg.  

France Gall started out as a yé-yé artist— ‘yeah-yeah’, a reference to the Beatles style — in the 1960s.The limited success of her early career was eclipsed when she won the 1965 Eurovision Song contest at just 17 years old.

Surprising everyone, including the French team, she scooped the top Eurovision prize with the insanely catchyPoupée de cire, poupée de son (Wax doll, sound doll). A song penned by a French icon, Serge Gainsbourg, ensuring the French team’s regret was absolute.

France Gall stuck with Gainsbourg after the Eurovision contest. But their collaboration met with limited success and plenty of controversy. Her single ‘Les Sucettes’ (‘Lollipops’) scandalized a nation with its overt double-entendres (of which she claimed ignorance).

Far more success was achieved when she partnered with singer-songwriter Michel Berger in the 1970s. Their winning partnership led to many hit songs and a lasting marriage. They worked and lived together right up to Michel Berger’s death in 1992.

Further tragedy followed her husband’s death when their daughter, who had cystic fibrosis, died in 1977. In later years, she moved away from music and became known for her humanitarian work. By the time she passed away in 2018, aged 70, France Gall was a national treasure and one of the most beloved French singers of any generation. 

Édith Piaf

Essential album: Chansons Parisiennes

Signature song: La vie en rose

Édith Piaf is perhaps France’s most famous singer, both in and outside France. Nicknamed La Môme Piaf, or the Little Sparrow, (piaf is slang for sparrow), she was known for her diminutive size and extraordinary voice.

Born Édith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, her upbringing reads like a dark novel: raised in a brothel; bereaved at 19 when her 2-year-old daughter died; discovered singing on the streets by a nightclub owner who was later murdered by gangsters. Small wonder there was plenty of material for the 2007 Oscar-winning movie La vie en rose.

Her discovery by the ill-fated Louis Leplée lifted her from the streets, launching a remarkable stage and recording career. Her fame skyrocketed in 1947 when the self-penned smash hit ’La Vie en rose’ was released.

Her voice filled concert halls around the world, and she became one of the defining voices of France. Sadly, in 1963 she died, aged just 47. Her ill health was likely exacerbated by a series of car accidents and a dependence on pain medication and alcohol.

Her legacy did not die with her, and it is fair to say she is the most famous French singer outside France. Her poignant 1960 masterpiece, ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ (‘No, I regret nothing’), beautifully captures the spirit of her meteoric life.  

Claude François

Essential album: Comme d’habitude

Signature song: Alexandrie Alexandra

Cloclo, aka Claude Antoine Marie François, wrote, composed, danced, and drummed his way into French hearts in a short but brilliant career.

Embracing the rock ‘n’ roll craze of the 1960s, he was known for adapting American hits. It wasn’t until he started penning his own songs in French that his career took off.

Ironically, his songs started being covered by great American singers, like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Most famously, his original ‘Comme d’habitude‘ (As usual) became Frank Sinatra’s ‘My way’.

Moving with the times, Claude shifted into disco in the 1970s. By then, he was a household name in France, infamous for his personal antics as much as his music. A doomed relationship with France Gall, a series of affairs with models, and a failed murder attempt by a fan all added to the mystique.

Sadly, fans never got to see how Claude would have adapted to the sounds of the 1980s. He died in 1978, aged just 39, after accidentally electrocuting himself in his bath.

Proving he was at the top of his game right to the end, ‘Alexandrie Alexandra’, perhaps his biggest hit ever, was released on the day of his burial.

Charles Aznavour

Essential album: La bohème

Signature song: La bohème

Charles Aznavour had an extraordinary career. Dubbed the “Frank Sinatra of France”, he wrote and sang well over 1,000 songs. He collaborated with musical heavyweights like Édith Piaf, Bob Dylan, Bing Crosby, and (fittingly) Frank Sinatra. And he still found time to star in many movies.

Among a select club of French singers with a global profile, Charles was once named the greatest entertainer of the century in a worldwide poll conducted by CNN.

Charles racked up numerous platinum records while gaining writing credits on songs that sold in their millions. His own record company credits him with over 180 million record sales, including collaborations.

Aside from being one of the most prolific French singers ever, Charles (born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavouriahad) had strong links to Armenia, the country of his parent’s birth.

His charitable work supporting Armenia, notably after the 1988 Armenian earthquake, saw him granted Armenian citizenship. He went on to represent the country at the United Nations. For this reason, he is also hailed as an Armenian icon.

Charles lived a long life and passed away in 2018, aged 94. He was still touring internationally just months before his death. Upon passing, he was given a full state funeral, underlining his status as one of the most celebrated French singers ever.

Georges Brassens

Essential album: Chante Les Chansons Poétiques no.1

Signature song: La mauvaise réputation

Georges Charles Brassens is largely unknown outside France, but he had an enormous following in his home country. Usually seen smoking a pipe while strumming his guitar, his style was quintessentially French.

Georges Brassens was viewed by fans as a lyrical poet who captured the romantic essence of a bygone France. Georges passed in 1980, and in recent years his work has gained some international following, despite the difficulties of translating his wordy songs into other languages.

One of the few acclaimed French singers to lead a quiet and unspectacular personal life, he is celebrated for his thought-provoking lyrics as much as his music. 

Best-selling French artists of all time

Record sales don’t always tell the whole story of a singer’s success. Édith Piaf, for example, performed at a time when record sales were negligible. While modern French singers are more accurately measured by their streaming numbers.

But even with that knowledge, there is no debate about the next three entries. They are authentic French singing legends, who also happen to be the best-selling French singers of all time.

Johnny Hallyday

Essential album: Flagrant Délit

Signature song: Je te promets

It is impossible to compose a list of famous French singers without including ‘Our Johnny’. He is the all-time best-selling French artist and a genuine French icon. He is so popular, he even appears in our post, 10 famous French people beloved in France today.

The man born Jean-Philippe Smet was likened to Elvis Presley and is credited with bringing rock ‘n’ roll to France.

He has sold 13 million albums more than the next best-selling French artist, Michel Sardou. He holds the record for the biggest concert in France; an audience topping 1 million watched him perform at the Eiffel Tower in 2000.  

Johnny passed away in 2017, with a career stretching back to 1960. His albums still feature in best-selling charts, and his fans remain legion. Despite not being widely appreciated outside France, Johnny is peerless amongst French singers.  

Jean-Jacques Goldman

Essential album: En Passant

Signature song: Quand la musique est bonne

It is a testament to the enduring appeal of Jean-Jacques Goldman that he remains one of France’s best-selling living artists, despite retiring in 2002. 

Only two French artists have sold more albums. One of them, Johnny Hallyday, owes some success to him — Jean-Jacques wrote and produced one of Johnny’s biggest albums, Gang.

Jean-Jacques was also the writer behind Céline Dion’s 1995 hit album D’eux, which became the best-selling French-language album of all time.

Alongside distinguished writing credits, Jean-Jacques is also one of the most feted French singers. His solo work spanned nearly three decades. He is fondly remembered for his work alongside Carole Fredericks and Michael Jones, a trio with the decidedly unimaginative name ‘Fredericks Goldman Jones’.

Jean-Jacques embraced several musical styles, from rock to new wave. In some ways, he is one of France’s earliest pop stars. And despite enjoying a lengthy retirement (he reached the milestone age of 70 in 2021), his musical legacy lives on.

Michel Sardou

Essential album: Vladimir Ilitch

Signature song: Les lacs du Connemara

Michel Sardou is sandwiched between Johnny Hallyday and Jean-Jacques Goldman in the French all-time bestseller lists. As with many French singers, Michel has enjoyed a long and sometimes eventful career.

One of his earliest releases, 1967’s ‘Les Ricains’ was released on the back of France exiting NATO while the Vietnam War was escalating. He sang in praise of American support for liberating France in 1944, which provoked the ire of France’s nationalist president, Charles de Gaulle. The controversy thrust Michel into the public eye, a lesson that politicians repeatedly fail to learn from.

Michel’s first big hit was released in 1970, J’habite en France (I live in France). A long and illustrious career followed, and he was still releasing music in 2010. Along the way, he flirted with controversial politics, frequently upsetting both ends of the political spectrum.

Although he never retired officially, Michel’s output faded away in recent years. Nonetheless, he remains one of the most popular French singers alive today.

Contemporary French chart-toppers

This list is heavy on French singers who made their mark in previous generations. Yet there is plenty of fresh and exciting music coming out of France. Here are a few contemporary artists shaking up the French music scene today.

Mylène Farmer

Essential album: Ainsi soit je…

Signature song: Désenchantée

Okay, this name could easily sit alongside the big-name stars of yesteryear. But Mylène Farmer is still creating and influencing French music today.

Mylène Farmer has racked up 21 chart-topping singles, including 8 consecutive number ones since 1984.  Her last single was released in 2020 to accompany a documentary about her. Predictably, it went to number one in the French music charts.   

Her first album was 1984’s ‘Cendres de Lune’ (Ashes of the moon). However, it was her sophomore album, ‘Ainsi soit je…’ (And either I…) that thrust her to stardom, topping the album charts and delivering her first number one single, ‘Pourvu qu’elles soient douces’.

Impossible to pin down, Mylène’s oeuvre is eclectic, encompassing electro, synth, and new wave sounds. Many contemporary French singers praise her influence, including Christine and the Queens and Gims.

Mylène may be one of the leading French singers of the last 40 years, yet she maintains a low profile. Her music speaks for itself, with her unique style and prolific output leaving an indelible mark on modern French music.

Christine and the Queens

Essential album: Chaleur humaine

Signature song: Christine

Christine and the Queens is not a band but the stage name of solo artist Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier. Chris, as she’s widely known, is one of the most original French musicians to emerge in the last 10 years.  

Fast-rising through the ranks of contemporary French singers, Chris has picked up numerous critical accolades, including Time song of the year in 2018 and 2020.

Mashing together several musical genres — Chris describes it as ‘freakpop’ — her albums perform well in English-speaking markets, unlike most French singers on this list.

Starting out in 2010, Christine and the Queens has just 2 studio albums to her name and several live EPs. In demand at international music festivals, Chris may yet become one of the most famous French singers outside her home country.

Soprano

Essential album: L’Everest

Signature song: Le Coach feat. Vincenzo

Saïd M’Roumbaba, aka Soprano, is one of the best-selling French singers today.  

Rap and hip-hop are massive in France, and the homegrown industry produces some of the biggest stars in France today.

Unlike grittier, edgier rappers, Soprano’s music appeals to all ages. Popularity with younger generations has helped him become one of the best-selling artists of recent years.

Soprano has put out 8 studio albums since 2010, with his 2021 ‘Chasseur d’étoiles’ reaching number one in France and number two in Belgium. His music is ubiquitous in France and he is well on his way to being one of the preeminent French singers of this generation.  

Vianney

Essential album: Vianney

Signature song: Je m’en vais

Although yet to achieve the heights of others names on this list, Vianney Bureau is a consistent presence on radio playlists in France.

Vianney is a down-to-earth musician who has dodged the usual pitfalls of stardom. He is known for simple acoustic performances with his guitar and duets with popular performers.

One collaboration, alongside the French rap star, Gims, nearly broke the charts in France. ‘La même’ is an earworm that dominated the French airwaves in 2018.  

Vianney’s last two studio albums reached number one, setting him on his way to becoming a French superstar.

A nod to the French artists we omitted

We’ve had to exclude a host of famous French singers, and there are probably one or two surprises for knowledgeable fans of French music.

The following French singers could easily have made this list and merit a special mention: Mireille Mathieu, Vanessa Paradis, Serge Gainsbourg, Manu Chao, Sheila, Françoise Hardy, Sylvie Vartan, Florent Pagny, and Francis Cabrel.

And a shout out to the artists lighting up the charts today, many of whom appeared on this list of favourite artists in France from 2020. Check it out, you may find a few exciting French singers to start a new Francophone playlist.  

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