Chapter 2

1969-1974: "Amoureux de Paname"

(traduction partielle en français)


The political defeat of the May movement led many of its participants to seek new outlets for their revolutionary impulses. The first half of the 1970s saw the emergence of the feminist and environmentalist movements as well as a disturbing proliferation of terrorist activity. Many former soixante-huitards sought enlightenment through travel and contact with distant cultures.


Renaud left school in March 1969 and started working in July of that year at a Latin Quarter bookshop, the Librairie 73. Freed from the constraints of formal education, he began to read voraciously. He spent his savings on his first motorcycle after seeing Dennis Hopper’s 1969 road movie, Easy Rider. The first French translation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road appeared two years later and, like Hopper’s film, encouraged the trend among disappointed soixante-huitards of redirecting their utopian quest towards remote or exotic destinations. However, Renaud’s involvement in this diaspora of disaffected youth was short-lived. With a group of friends, he founded in the mountains of the Cévennes the Communauté Anarchiste Nestor-Makhno, an experience which he later described with dry humour:


We’d left for several years; we lasted at least four days. One of our mates had convinced us that we were going to replenish ourselves by "making love with nature." Two days before we left, he told us he was bringing his girlfriend. For the nights when nature had a headache...

In September 1972, Renaud left Paris again after being dismissed from his position at the Librairie 73 because of frequent lateness, absenteeism and collusion with shoplifters. Planning to hitchhike to Kathmandu, he travelled no further than Avignon, where he stayed for eight months. Despite his initial attraction to the town, he soon became bored, and imagined leaving the following year for South Africa or Chile. Instead, he returned to Paris, the setting of his first revolutionary experience, and made it his definitive home.


During the early 1970s, Renaud frequented two different Parisian milieux, both of which would strongly influence his future direction as a singer-songwriter. At his favourite Latin Quarter bar, Le Bréa, he befriended a group of delinquent youths, similar to the blousons noirs who had taken part in the May riots. Fascinated by their folklore – "bikes, street-fighting, the heist of the century" – Renaud adopted their language and dress codes so that he could "look like a delinquent and terrify the bourgeoisie." He discovered first hand the world of the grands ensembles, reinforcing in the process his identification with the social milieu contemptuously described by Fouchet in May 1968 as "la pègre." At around the same time, the actor Patrick Dewaere introduced Renaud to Roman Bouteille’s theatre troupe at Le Café de la Gare, the best-known café-théâtre (theatre workshop) of this period. The cafés-théâtres were an important locus of 1970s counter-culture which sought to emphasise the spontaneous and collective aspects of theatrical production and to establish a direct, intimate link between actors and audience. Most importantly, they cultivated the gritty style of language spoken by the youthful population of the grands ensembles.


Renaud thus gained entrance both to a social milieu whose visceral antiauthoritarianism and delinquency gave him a sense of continuity with the formative experience of May 1968, and to an artistic milieu interested in the expressive possibilities of delinquent slang. At this point, he was more interested in acting than in singing, and accepted the lead role in Robin des quoi? (a humorous deformation of Robin des bois, the French name for Robin Hood) at Le Café de la Gare. However, his friendship with Michel Pons, whose father ran Le Bréa, steered him back in the direction of popular song.


Pons was an accordionist whose repertoire included the accordéon-musette classics of the 1920s and 1930s. Accordéon-musette was a hybrid musical form which originated in the bals-musettes (working-class dance-halls) of the Bastille district at the turn of the twentieth century. This district had a large population of immigrants, both from the Auvergne region and Italy. Local dance-hall bands played traditional auvergnat folk dances, driven by a kind of bagpipes known as the cabrette. Around 1905, the more melodious accordion imported by the Italians replaced the cabrette as the leading instrument in these bands. Adapted to a variety of dance-steps, including the java, the waltz and the tango, accordéon-musette also provided a musical setting for numerous "realist" songs.



The genre of realist song, or chanson réaliste, pre-dated accordéon-musette; its origins were in the goualantes and complaintes criminelles peddled by Parisian street singers throughout the nineteenth century. Aristide Bruant formalised and commercialised the genre in the 1880s and 1890s at his Montmartre cabaret, Le Mirliton. His "chansons et monologues réalistes" evoked the marginal existence of the criminals, pimps, prostitutes and vagabonds who haunted the working-class faubourgs (inner suburbs) of Paris and the historic zone (shanty town) on the embankments of the city’s fortifications. Some of Bruant’s songs presented a tragic and brutal image of low-life Paris; some evoked, on the contrary, an idealised world free from the constraints of bourgeois morality; many others flaunted the behavioural and linguistic exuberance of their protagonists in a way that seems to have been intended to humiliate, intimidate or perhaps simply titillate the more fortunate members of society. Bruant drew out the poetic qualities of the exotic slang spoken in the margins of Paris and performed his songs in a declamatory fashion; conversely, the music which accompanied his lyrics was based on rather monotonous-sounding military marches, funeral dirges or hunting tunes. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a new generation of songwriters influenced by Bruant churned out reams of realist lyrics. Oddly, these lyrics were sometimes accompanied by romantic salon music; more often than not, they were set to the newer, heady rhythms and dithyrambic melodies of accordéon-musette.


Renaud was mesmerised by Pons’s music, which, he later speculated, "must have resonated with something in my past." Indeed, Renaud’s mother was a devotee of le musette and had frequently listened to such music in the family home. As an adolescent, Renaud blocked his ears to accordéon-musette, partly because of its associations with his mother’s generation and partly because he was more interested in the contemporary popular music of the 1960s. At twenty-one, the epiphany which he experienced upon rediscovering the music of his childhood inspired him to borrow his mother’s old records and to acquaint himself more fully with the history of accordéon-musette and chanson réaliste.


Renaud and Pons developed a repertoire which included traditional realist songs from the Belle Epoque and interwar years as well as original songs which Renaud had written in a similar vein. They performed in the streets of Paris, in public squares and market places, and in the courtyards of old apartment blocks. Joined by a second guitarist in 1974, they played for audiences queuing outside Le Café de la Gare and were hired as the support act for Coluche’s one-man show at Le Caf’Conc’, a café-théâtre on the Champs-Elysées. Renaud was noticed at this venue by two independent producers associated with Polydor, who subsequently offered him his first recording contract.


Renaud’s first, eponymously-titled album was released in early 1975 and included a series of his own realist-inspired songs. In La Java sans joie (1974), he announced:


Moi j’aime bien chanter la racaille,
la mauvaise herbe des bas quartiers,
les mauvais garçons, la canaille,
ceux qui sont nés sur le pavé.
J’ai bien du mal à les chanter,
tell’ment qu’elles sont tristes mes histoires,
mais celle que j’vais vous raconter,
elle fait même pleurer ma guitare.

I like to sing about low-life,
the bad seeds from bad neighbourhoods,
larrikins and riffraff,
those who are born in the street.
I find it quite hard to sing these songs,
the stories they tell are so sad,
but the one I’m about to relate
makes even my guitar weep.


Born into poverty, Renaud’s hero takes to crime like a fish to water. After making a name for himself as a gangster, reveller and dandy, he falls foul of the law and is guillotined. Renaud designates the locations which frame his hero’s milieu – "la rue du Four," "Saint-Mandé," "Ménilmontant" and "Sacré-Coeur" – and imitates the parigot or faubourien accent associated with such areas. He uses with relish and assurance the picturesque slang spoken by the underworld of the past, although he combines archaic terms such as "surineur" (someone adept at handling a surin, or knife) with more contemporary expressions such as s’envoyer en l’air (to have it off). He even seems to have invented the colourful verb voyouter – probably on the basis of the feminine adjective voyoute, in itself quite rare – as a synonym for faire voyou (to lead the life of a delinquent). The fatalistic perspective, geographical precision and exuberant slang of La Java sans joie are strongly reminiscent of Bruant’s style.


As the title of the song suggests, the lyrics are accompanied by a java-musette arrangement. The movement of the dance could be said to embody both the hedonism and circularity of the protagonist’s life, even though the combination of festive music with an ostensibly "joyless" melodrama may seem surprising. The sensuous imagery is complemented by rhapsodic accordion runs, while the accordion features in the story itself as an intrinsic backdrop to the hero’s exploits:


Il commençait à s’faire un nom,
et dans les petits bals musettes,
lorsque jouait l’accordéon,
on voyait tournait sa casquette.
Il buta son premier larron
alors qu’il n’avait pas vingt ans,
le crime c’était sa vocation,
l’arnaque c’était son tempérament.

He began to make a name for himself,
and at local dances,
when the accordion played,
you could see his cap turning.
He bumped off his first villain
by the time he was twenty,
crime was his vocation,
swindling was his nature.

These lines echo Ambrose Bierce’s description of the accordion as an "instrument in harmony with the feelings of a murderer," which Renaud would later quote in one of his concert programs. They also remind us that the accordion used to be considered an instrument of moral degeneracy. Associated not only with the low-life celebrated in realist lyrics and with foreigners (the Italians who introduced the instrument to the Bastille dance-halls) but also, more generally, with unbridled pleasure, it was condemned by the Catholic Church and even, initially, by the Auvergnats themselves.


By the time Renaud wrote La Java sans joie, the accordion had long since lost its subversive novelty, if not its class connotations. As he later recalled, it was seen in the music industry as both old-fashioned and unfashionable: "There were hardly any singers or songs on music television using an accordion. It was still considered taboo, working-class, common, an instrument of the people . . . with everything contemptible which that implies." Nevertheless, Renaud’s revival of his city’s musical heritage attracted a sizeable and diverse audience. Passers-by both young and old responded enthusiastically to the realist songs which he performed with Michel Pons in the streets of Paris. The producers of his first album clearly believed in the marketability of such songs, even though it sold only several thousand copies in its first year of release.


What was it about these "golden oldies" of the Belle Epoque and interwar years that appealed to both Renaud and listeners of the mid-1970s? Pascal Ory writes that "rétrophilie" ("retromania") was a significant feature of popular culture during this period and suggests that people turned to the past to escape a pervasive sense of uncertainty provoked by the collapse of revolutionary ideologies, the emerging economic recession and an aesthetic crisis which challenged the value of avant-garde culture. For academic and music critic Louis-Jean Calvet, the retrospective dimension of Renaud’s repertoire was, on the contrary, dynamic rather than escapist:


Java, accordion-waltz, tango, Renaud sings like in that fantastic film Casque d’Or and, what’s more, revives Bruant’s slang even in his rhymes. His singing and guitar-playing are awful, but, behind the approximate music and lightweight texts of this anarchist street kid, one can sense something about to be born, on the fringe of today’s main popular song trends. He has a deliberately retro style, but in the good sense of the term, a retro which takes us back to popular song of the turn of the century.

Renaud himself clearly believed that the past could inform and enliven the present. In Ecoutez-moi, les gavroches (1974), he urged the street kids from the grands ensembles to reclaim their city by exploring what remained of its historic sites:


Traînez vos vies dans les ruelles,
dans les vieux bistrots, dans les cours,
et sur les pavés éternels
qui n’ont pas quitté les faubourgs.
Allez respirez sur la Butte
tous les parfums de la Commune,
souvenirs de Paris qui lutte
et qui pleure parfois sous la lune.
Ecoutez-moi, les gavroches,
vous les enfants de la ville:
non, Paris n’est pas si moche,
ne pensez plus à l’an 2000.

Spend your life hanging around the side-streets,
in the old pubs and courtyards,
and on the everlasting cobblestones
which haven’t left the old neighbourhoods.
Go and breath the air of Montmartre,
all the smells of the Commune,
memories of Paris in arms
and which sometimes cries under the moon.
Listen to me, street kids,
Children of the city:
Paris isn’t that ugly,
Forget about the year 2000.


Chanson réaliste and accordéon-musette were the musical equivalent of these three-dimensional vestiges of Parisian history, and helped to restore a sense of colour and historical grounding which had been destroyed by the grands ensembles. One can imagine Renaud’s delinquent friends identifying strongly with the mauvais garçons (bad hats), marlous (hoodlums or pimps) and apaches (exuberant gangsters who terrorised Paris in the early years of the twentieth century) of realist song. One can also imagine their fascination upon discovering that the colloquial term zone, frequently associated with the most dilapidated of the grands ensembles, used to evoke another slum belt, where appalling living conditions could be offset by picturesque surroundings and a sense of conviviality:


Y a des tas d’citoyens amoureux d’la nature
Et qu’ont pas les moyens d’voyager
Ils la connaissent seulement par la littérature
La rive où fleurit l’oranger
Ils n’rêvent que d’s’en aller dans les landes en Bretagne
Dans les auberges à coups d’fusil
Sans s’douter qu’il existe un vrai pays d’cocagne
A dix centimètres de Paris
Sur la zone, mieux que sur le trône
On est plus heureux que des rois
On applique la vraie République
Ils vont sans contraintes et sans lois
Y a pas d’riches et tout l’monde a sa niche
Et son petit jardin tout pareil
Ses trois pots d’géraniums et sa part de soleil
Sur la zone

There are heaps of citizens in love with nature
And who can’t afford to travel
They only know through books
The shore where the orange tree blooms
Their one dream is to go to the moors in Brittany
And stay in an inn where you pay through the nose
They don’t even suspect that there’s a real land of milk and honey
Just ten centimetres from Paris
On the zone, its better than on the throne
People are happier than kings
They live in the real Republic
Without constraints or laws
There are no rich people and everyone’s got their own possie
And their little garden as well
Their pots of geraniums and their place in the sun
On the zone


Sur la zone (M. Hely and J. Jekyll), recorded by the great realist chanteuse Fréhel in 1933 and later revived by Renaud, made the historic zone seem far more idyllic than it actually was. However, as Adrian Rifkin points out, in old photos of the zone, "it is possible to imagine . . . at least a dream of poverty and freedom, of cheap shops and dance halls, lilacs and French fries . . . the alcoholism, the tuberculosis, the murders, and the trash are only a part of life there." When demolition of the historic zone began in 1919, many zoniers (inhabitants of the zone) were loathe to move into the new, government-subsidised apartment blocks built on top of or close to their old neighbourhoods. With the massive and chaotic suburban sprawl of the interwar years, the term zone acquired a more generic sense and came to designate "any poor suburb of a large city, especially Paris, inhabited by the unemployed, the derelict and the marginal." Some realist songs of this period were filled with nostalgic longing for the historic zone, which was gradually disappearing. Rifkin argues that the demolition of the zone, while it may have been experienced as a genuine loss by the zoniers themselves, was cynically exploited by realist songwriters – many of whom came from a bourgeois background – and a show business industry primarily interested in the perennial marketability of nostalgia as a commodity. However, as Ray Pratt suggests:


The longing for a past located somewhere and connections to a place that is real seem important desires to which popular music has continually spoken and which give popular music part of its appeal as a utopian critique of a present-day existence that has grown increasingly rootless.

This was even more true for audiences who had experienced the urban upheavals of the late 1950s and 1960s and the dehumanising environment of the grands ensembles. The last remnants of the historic zone were demolished on either side of the Porte de Champerret in 1970, as the problems associated with the contemporary zone of the grands ensembles were beginning to emerge in public consciousness as a major social issue.


As a child, while his mother was listening to the realist classics of the interwar years, Renaud spent hours playing with friends in the wastelands of the historic zone at Montrouge, near his family home. As a young adult, realist song not only had nostalgic associations with his childhood, but also offered an indirect way of expressing his identification with his new delinquent friends. In addition, the historical evolution of realist song brought together "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" in a way which might have resonated with a former soixante-huitard. This may seem like an odd assertion, to the extent that realist lyrics focused on the daily life of the Parisian underworld rather than on the industrial proletariat and its political struggles. The famous Communard songwriter Jean-Baptiste Clément hated the realist cabaret culture spawned by Bruant, in which, he claimed, "everything connected with progress, justice and humanity is made a laughing stock, and where on the pretext of realism the poor are made to speak like whores at the barriers and the working-class talk like pimps." Moreover, realist songs attracted a large bourgeois and even aristocratic audience whose interest appeared to stem from voyeuristic rather than socialistic impulses. However, this did not preclude the powerful appeal of such songs to the working-class masses whose interests Clément had in mind. On the contrary, Richard Sonn affirms:


The thief, the pimp, the whore, served as cultural symbols for many in the working class while remaining at the boundaries of that class, respected for their hostility toward the dominant classes, sentimentalized for their suffering, and reviled when they betrayed their fellows for personal gain.

While realist lyrics may have retained the symbolic value ascribed to them by Sonn, their fusion with accordéon-musette dance-music gave them an additional association with working-class sociability and leisure time. Chantal Brunschwig writes:


The realist genre took on the role of tragedy while the comic genre took on the role of farce. But this initially dramatic expression of society’s outcasts became, with le musette, the music of celebration for the new proletarian family. The realist genre therefore helped both to integrate those living on the margins of society (to make them less frightening by transforming their lives into folklore) and to structure a new social group. Above all, realist song and accordéon-musette have remained the symbols of working-class Paris.

In an attempt to reach a larger working-class audience, anarchist songwriters from the 1890s onwards increasingly abandoned the portentous, classical style of Clément and Pottier for the type of street slang popularised by Bruant. The chansonnier who combined most successfully the political militancy of the Communards with the truculent style of cabaret performers like Bruant was Montéhus, who became the idol of the working classes in the years leading up to the First World War. Renaud included in his realist repertoire one of Montéhus’s most famous songs, La Butte rouge (1922), which denounced the use of honest workers as cannon fodder. The "red hilltop" in question was situated in the town of Bapaume, in Champagne, which had been destroyed during the First World War. Montéhus’s antimilitaristic lyrics were set to an accordéon-musette arrangement by Georges Krier:


Sur c’te butte-là, y’avait pas d’gigolettes,
Pas de marlous, ni de beaux muscadins.
Ah, c’était loin du moulin d’la galette,
Et de Paname, qu’est le roi des pat’lins.
C’qu’elle en a bu, du beau sang, cette terre!
Sang d’ouvriers et sang de paysans
Car les bandits, qui sont cause de guerres,
N’en meur’nt jamais, on n’tue qu’les innocents!
La Butt’ Roug’, c’est son nom, l’baptème s’fit un matin
Où tous ceux qui grimpèrent, roulèrent dans le ravin...
Aujourd’hui y’a des vignes, il y pousse du raisin
Qui boira d’ce vin-là, boira l’sang des copains!

On that hilltop, there were no working girls,
Pimps or popinjays.
Ah, it was far from the Moulin de la Galette,
and from Paris, that most noble of villages.
So much beautiful blood has quenched that earth!
The blood of workers and peasants
Because the bandits who cause wars
Never die in them, only the innocent get killed!
The Red Hilltop is its name, the baptism took place one morning
When all those who climbed its slopes rolled down into the ravine...
Today there are vines bearing grapes
Whoever drinks that wine, drinks the blood of our mates!


While the themes and historical context of realist songs gave them a dynamic relevance to former soixante-huitards and delinquent youths from the grands ensembles, other listeners may have experienced such songs quite differently. In La Coupole (1974), Renaud combined an accordéon-musette arrangement with a series of playful rhymes to satirise the camp decadence of the fashionable Montparnasse nightclub which he had himself frequented in the early 1970s and where the "retro" fad was in full swing. La Coupole was a bastion of "radical chic" and a favourite meeting place for aficionados of "underground" culture:


Andy Warhol, à la Coupole,
peint les gambettes de Mistinguett,
il les dessine très longilignes,
leur donne la forme du cou d’un cygne.

Andy Warhol, at La Coupole,
Paints Mistinguett’s legs,
He draws them long and rangy,
in the form of a swan’s neck.

Mistinguett was a former star of the realist genre who had introduced, along with Max Dearly, the daring Valse Chaloupée or Apach’s Dance [sic] at Le Moulin Rouge in 1909. The assonance of Renaud’s word games complements the surrealism of Warhol’s whimsical sketch and suggests an hallucinatory trip procured by either the hashish or the LSD with which the French underground had been experimenting since the mid-1960s. However, Warhol’s approach to realist culture is that of an aesthete (and, possibly, that of a bourgeois fop attracted to rough trade). It becomes clearer as the song progresses that La Coupole is not Renaud’s natural milieu and that his interest in the past is at cross-purposes with that of his fellow patrons. In what becomes a bizarre historical pantomime, a cheeky and street-wise apache of the Belle Epoque, played by Renaud, pairs off with a glamorous Hollywood movie star of the 1950s, played by vacuous young women who appear to have stepped straight out of Warhol’s famous serial portrait of Marilyn Monroe:


Elles me fascinent, toutes ces gamines,
avec leurs mines de Marilyn,
sortant de l’école, vers la Coupole,
elles caracolent et elles racolent.
Quand vient le soir, j’aime aller boire
un verre d’alcool à la Coupole,
pour faire du gringue à toutes ces dingues
à toutes ces folles bien trop frivoles.

They fascinate me, all these girls
made up like Marilyn,
on their way from school to La Coupole,
they tout and prance about.
In the evening, I like to go
and have a drink at La Coupole,
so I can chat up all these nutters,
all these crazy airheads.

In many traditional realist songs, it was the bourgeoisie who ventured into low-life establishments in search of cheap thrills; that situation is reversed here as the apache consumes with detached mockery the fashionable pleasures on offer at La Coupole. Moreover, these pleasures are not necessarily what they seem. The terms folle and Caroline, which Renaud uses to refer to the female clientele of La Coupole, mean "homosexual" in slang. Caroline can also mean "transvestite" and has associations with the Gazolines, a flamboyant group of transvestites enamoured of 1950s Hollywood glamour and who frequented La Coupole in the early 1970s:


Toutes les idoles, de la Coupole,
les midinettes, les gigolettes,
les Carolines en crinoline,
ne sont en fait que des starlettes.

All the idols of La Coupole,
young working girls
and queens in crinoline,
are really just starlets.

Ironically, the Belle Epoque apaches, despite their violent and fiercely masculine rituals, were themselves frequently accused of effeminacy by factory workers because of their sartorial flashiness. However, the apaches were closer in spirit to the American Indians after whom they were named than to the cross-dressers of La Coupole; their dandyism was primitive and belligerent rather than foppish.


The most eloquent example of how a musical culture such as chanson réaliste could be appropriated for quite conflicting purposes was an advertisement in the pages of France-Soir on 12 May 1974 for a "people’s ball hosted by Marcel Azzola and Aimable" in support of the conservative Giscard d’Estaing’s presidential candidature. Marcel Azzola had been a leading exponent of accordéon-musette for many years. Giscard himself also played the accordion, a talent which he publicly exploited on several occasions in what could be seen as an attempt to promote himself as a man of the people. In reality a well-heeled member of the French plutocracy, Giscard was the antithesis of everything that Renaud stood for.


Renaud’s revival of the realist genre enabled him to express his identification with his delinquent friends while at the same time providing them with a sense of connection to the past. However, in some respects, realist songs went against the current of contemporary radical thought. Such songs traditionally promoted a macho, sometimes frankly misogynous, view of gender relations. The narrator of Renaud’s Gueule d’aminche (1974) is shocked by the love which has developed between a fellow marlou and a young bourgeois woman:


Mais l’angoisse c’est qu’un beau soir
il a rencontré c’te môme,
son sourire en balançoire,
ses grands airs et ses diplômes.
L’aurait mieux fait d’la maquer
su’l’trottoir pour trois cents balles,
plutôt que d’s’amouracher
de cette salope en cavale.

The trouble is, one night
he met this kid
with a sultry smile,
a snobby, educated type.
He should have made her
Turn tricks for fifty bucks,
Instead of falling
For this bitch on the run.

The narrator’s brutal response reflects a world in which relationships between men and women are over-determined by the needs of the delinquent gang. The young delinquents of Belle Epoque Paris were often both lover and procurer to their female partners; the term marlou could mean "pimp" as well as "hoodlum." As Michelle Perrot points out in her study of the apaches, these women had more independence in certain areas of their life than the wives of respectable bourgeois men, but were ultimately controlled by their exploitative and often violent boyfriends. The affair described in Gueule d’aminche is tantamount to class betrayal; it threatens the gang’s cohesion and spoils the excitement of street life:


Depuis qu’il l’a dans la peau,
c’est plus le marlou qu’j’ai connu,
y parle de s’mettre au boulot,
de plus traîner dans les rues.
Pour y offrir des dentelles
y renonce même au fric-frac,
aux coups d’surin et d’semelles,
aux combines et à l’arnaque.

Since he’s had her under his skin,
he’s not the larrikin I once knew,
he talks about getting a job,
and not cruising the streets any more.
To give her fine lace
he’s even given up burgling,
he’s put away his knife and boots
and left the con game.


Renaud seems to have adopted the machismo of realist mythology as part and parcel of the culture of "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes." This was not necessarily in contradiction with his soixante-huitard heritage; David Caute points out that "rampant male chauvinism" was a feature of radical circles in the late 1960s. However, by the time Renaud wrote Gueule d’aminche, the feminist movement was well-established; the release of his first album in 1975 coincided with the "Année Internationale de la Femme" ("International Year of Women"). Such songs must have seemed anachronistic to many listeners; Jacques Erwan, in his otherwise sympathetic biography of 1982, argues:


If one looks at the ideology which Renaud expresses in his texts and which he confirms in most of his statements and actions, there is one area in which a flagrant contradiction becomes apparent: the portrayal of women in his songs is not always progressive, far from it.

However, it is unclear to what extent the narrator of Gueule d’aminche reflected Renaud’s real attitude towards women. The distinctly anti-macho stance, intimate tone and self-mockery of many of his later songs suggest that he was not inherently misogynous. A song like Gueule d’aminche nonetheless set him apart from the substantial number of his peers who were fighting in the mid-1970s for sexual equality.


The celebration of urban Paris in realist songs was also at odds with contemporary radical thought. Large cities were anathema to the nascent environmentalist movement, whose concerns were being relayed by folk musicians all over France. As mentioned earlier, the "return to nature" had been a short-lived experience for Renaud. In the opening song of his first album, Amoureux de Paname (1974), he mercilessly taunts the evangelists of this new religion. Paradoxically, the jingling acoustic guitars give the song a folksy flavour. However, this is offset by elements more reminiscent of the realist genre, such as the accordion riffs and the term "Paname," an old, slang synonym for Paris.


Renaud begins by cheerfully dismissing the "return to nature" as a backward-looking, genteel fantasy and further belittles the movement’s adherents by suggesting that they do not even warrant a well-crafted song:


Ecoutez-moi, vous les ringards,
écologistes du sam’di soir,
cette chanson-là vaut pas un clou,
mais je la chante rien que pour vous.
Vous qui voulez du beau gazon,
des belles pelouses, des p’tits moutons,
des feuilles de vigne et des p’tites fleurs,
faudrait remettre vos montres à l’heure.

Listen up you bunch of has-beens,
weekend environmentalists,
this might be a crappy song,
but I’m only singing it for you.
Forget your grassy lawns,
your little sheep,
your fig leaves and flowers,
the times are changing!

In the following verses, Renaud proclaims his attraction to the thrusting forms of his city’s skyscrapers and gives free reign to the kind of absurd hyperbole seen earlier in Crève salope!


Moi j’aime encore les pissotières,
j’aime encore l’odeur des poubelles,
j’me parfume pas à l’oxygène,
l’gaz carbonique c’est mon hygiène.

I also love public urinals,
the smell of rubbish bins,
oxygen’s not my kind of perfume,
I clean myself with carbon dioxide.

The flamboyant and derisive humour of Amoureux de Paname gives the song an infectious quality, but leaves one wondering at the same time why Renaud should have chosen to ridicule a philosophy which had captured the imagination of many of his soixante-huitard peers, and to support instead an aggressive, modern form of urban landscape, much of which, ironically, was a legacy of the Gaullist years. The song can perhaps best be understood as an attack not so much on the environmentalist movement as such as on the fashion-conscious, humourless or fundamentalist traits of its more pompous followers. Renaud may also have been loathe to associate himself with the self-indulgent escapism which sometimes characterised the movement in its early stages and which seemed oblivious to the class issues raised in May 1968. Michel Gheude and Richard Kalisz argue:


Because it separates environmental issues from the socialist struggle, the "return to nature" is a utopian and backward-looking fantasy which seeks a peaceful haven free from struggle, an oasis, a long weekend. That is why it was quickly snapped up by commercial interests and transformed into an immensely profitable business.

Amoureux de Paname could also be interpreted as an attack on Giscard d’Estaing’s presidential campaign of early 1974, in which environmental issues were a major theme. The conservative candidate asserted his commitment to improving


the quality of city life by reducing high-density areas, preventing the sprawl of high-rise blocks, conserving all urban parklands, whether publicly or privately-owned, and drafting a ten-year plan to provide every residential area with at least 10m of public parks and gardens per person.

While such policies had bipartisan support, Renaud doubtless wished to distance himself from the privileged milieu in which they were formulated. Although Amoureux de Paname focuses on central Paris, and while other songs like Ecoutez-moi, les gavroches indicate that Renaud’s purported love of concrete and asphalt did not extend to the city’s suburban housing estates, it could be seen as an indirect expression of solidarity with his delinquent friends, who had to make do with the high-rise flats to which they had been relegated and who did not have the luxury of taking part in political discussions about environmental issues.


Amoureux de Paname anticipates the emergence of the British punk movement, which, as Paul Yonnet writes, "hates the countryside . . . and accepts the city – its everyday environment – for what it is: ‘We like London, blocks and concrete,’ confides Joe Strummer." The way in which Renaud alludes in the chorus to one of the most famous graffiti of May 1968 – "sous les pavés, la plage!" – suggests, at face value, that he has left behind that era’s idealism:


Moi, j’suis amoureux de Paname,
du béton et du macadam,
sous les pavés, ouais c’est la plage,
mais l’bitume c’est mon paysage,
le bitume c’est mon paysage.

I’m in love with Paris,
with concrete and tarmac,
okay, so there’s a beach under the cobblestones,
but the asphalt’s my countryside,
the asphalt’s my countryside.

However, while he shared the provocative, iconoclastic spirit of the punk movement, and although some of the delinquent protagonists of his subsequent songs would embody the movement’s slogan, "no future," many of his other songs indicate that Renaud himself remained profoundly attached to the utopian dreams and political militancy of May 1968. Amoureux de Paname is also too melodious to be considered a hard-core punk song. Moreover, its realist elements contrast somewhat paradoxically with the modern architecture which Renaud appears to glorify elsewhere in the song. Paris clearly embodied for Renaud a more robust form of revolt than the hippy communes of the countryside, but the other songs discussed in this chapter suggest that the city’s vestiges, rather than its recent additions, were a more significant source of poetic inspiration.


Renaud’s realist songs set him apart from the social formations of environmentalism, feminism and "radical chic" in which many of his soixante-huitard peers regrouped during the first half of the 1970s. The history of "the labouring classes and the dangerous classes" of Paris, as expressed through the popular music of the Belle Epoque and interwar years, offered him less an ideological credo than a way in which to speak and a place from which to do so. He expressed his political views more explicitly – albeit with the same delinquent voice – in a number of other songs, of which the most notorious and enduring example is Hexagone (1974).


Hexagone is a diatribe of epic proportions which became something of a signature song during the first ten years of Renaud’s career. He was considerably less enamoured of the hexagone (a synonym for France derived from the shape of the country’s external borders) than of its capital city. In twelve verses, each corresponding to a month of the year, he uses a perennial event or anniversary to accuse the French people of failing to maintain the basic principles of liberty, equality and justice. The two-chord structure and simple arrangement comprising acoustic guitars, bass and harmonica foreground the lyrics and give the song a Dylanesque feel, while the rapid tempo sustains the impetus of Renaud’s relentlessly bitter denunciation.


He introduces shock tactics from the first verse by juxtaposing an image of his compatriots embracing each other and the New Year with a series of insults which emphasise their conservatism, incompetence and hypocrisy:


Ils s’embrassent au mois de janvier,
car une nouvelle année commence,
mais depuis des éternités
l’a pas tell’ment changé la France.
Passent les jours et les semaines,
y’a qu’le décor qui évolue,
la mentalité est la même,
tous des tocards, tous des faux-culs.

They kiss each other in January,
because a new year is beginning,
But France hasn’t really changed
In ages.
Days and weeks pass,
Only the scenery moves on,
Attitudes stay the same,
They’re all losers, two-faced pricks.

In the second verse, France is portrayed as a police state in which political opposition and the preservation of its memory are repressed in the name of public order:


Ils sont pas lourds, en février,
à se souvenir de Charonne,
des matraqueurs assermentés
qui fignolèrent leur besogne.
La France est un pays de flics,
à tous les coins d’rue y’en a cent,
pour faire régner l’ordre public
ils assassinent impunément.

Hardly anyone in February
Remembers Charonne,
and the meticulous job
the boys did with their truncheons.
France is a country of cops,
There’s a hundred on every street corner,
To maintain public order
They kill with impunity.

The first lines allude to an anti-OAS demonstration organised by trade-unions on 8 February 1962 which led to the death of nine participants. Eight of the victims suffocated while attempting to escape from charging riot police via the Charonne metro station. This tragedy had special significance for Renaud; not only had OAS bombs exploded in the apartment blocks inhabited respectively by his immediate family and grandparents, but his mother and father had also taken part in the 8 February demonstration. He later remembered his parents returning home in tears after attending the public funeral and massive demonstration for the Charonne victims held at the Père-Lachaise cemetery on 13 February 1962. As a general critique of the French police, the second verse of Hexagone also echoes an earlier incident in October 1961 during which police killed scores of Algerian demonstrators in the streets of Paris and threw their bodies into the Seine, as well as the confrontations between students and the CRS in May 1968. Similarly, it would have resonated with contemporary audiences familiar with the punitive attitude adopted by Raymond Marcellin, Minister of the Interior during Pompidou’s presidency, towards recalcitrant radicals whose revolutionary fervour remained undamped by the political defeat of the May movement. The Charonne metro station was once again the scene of violent demonstrations after a security guard shot dead the young Maoist activist Pierre Overney at Renault-Billancourt on 25 February 1972.


In the third verse, Renaud again uses a specific incident to comment on broader issues:


Quand on exécute au mois d’mars,
de l’autr’côté des Pyrénées,
un anarchiste du pays basque,
pour lui apprendre à se révolter,
ils crient, ils pleurent et ils s’indignent
de cette immonde mise à mort,
mais ils oublient qu’la guillotine
chez nous aussi fonctionne encore.

An execution in March
on the other side of the Pyrenees,
of a Basque anarchist,
to teach him a lesson,
Makes them shout, cry and condemn
This hideous killing,
But they forget that the guillotine
Is still in operation here.

The anarchist in question was Salvador Puig Antich, a 26-year old Catalan separatist sentenced to death by a Spanish court after being charged with the murder of a policeman. Despite the absence of proof, an international campaign to have the sentence commuted and the relatively infrequent application of the death penalty in Spain, Puig Antich was garrotted in a Barcelona prison on 2 March 1974. In retrospect, Renaud’s reminder that the guillotine continued to operate on French soil assumes additional significance when one considers that France became in 1981 – some four years after Spain – the last Western European nation to abolish the death penalty. Puig Antich’s execution would also have been symbolically important to separatist movements in France, where only two months earlier the government had dissolved the French Basque organisation Enbata, the Breton Front de Libération de la Bretagne (FLB) and the Corsican Fronte Paesanu Corsu di Liberazione (FPCL). Regional autonomy had been a key demand in the struggle against centralised power structures during May 1968 and returned as a theme in Renaud’s later songs.



In the fourth verse Renaud evokes a lacklustre proverb diffused by the media – "en avril ne te découvre pas d’un fil" ("never cast a clout till May is out") – to ridicule the French population’s fastidious adherence to outdated or meaningless principles and traditions. He then turns in the next verse to the events of May 1968:


Ils se souviennent, au mois de mai,
d’un sang qui coula rouge et noir,
d’une révolution manquée
qui faillit renverser l’histoire.
J’me souviens surtout d’ces moutons,
effrayés par la liberté,
s’en allant voter par millions
pour l’ordre et la sécurité.

They remember in May
the red and black blood
of a failed revolution
which almost changed the course of history.
I especially remember them,
terrified by freedom,
voting in their millions like sheep
for order and safety.

These lines highlight in heroic terms the injuries sustained by protesters in May 1968 and Renaud’s belief in the May movement’s real potential to change French society: the widespread description of the events as a "révolution mimée," ("pseudo-revolution") with its patronising and diminishing overtones, is replaced here by the more ennobling image of a "révolution manquée" ("failed revolution"). They also convey the depth of feeling Renaud continued to experience some six years later towards the "silent majority" who had ensured the landslide victory of the Gaullists at the legislative elections of June 1968.


This leads logically in the sixth verse to an attack on the myth of the French Resistance which had played an important part in establishing De Gaulle’s authority:


Ils commémorent, au mois de juin,
un débarquement d’Normandie,
ils pensent au brave soldat ricain
qu’est v’nu se faire tuer loin d’chez lui.
Ils oublient qu’à l’abri des bombes,
les Français criaient: vive Pétain,
qu’ils étaient bien planqués à Londres,
qu’y avait pas beaucoup d’Jean Moulin.

They commemorate in June
the Normandy landing,
they think of the brave Yankee soldiers
who came to get killed miles from home.
They forget that far away from the bombs
the French were shouting "long live Pétain!"
that they were well-hidden in London,
that there were few like Jean Moulin.

The implication that not only Vichy collaborators but also De Gaulle’s forces lacked the moral courage to resist the Germans at home must have scandalised many listeners in the mid-1970s, especially when one considers that French attitudes towards the occupying authorities had only recently come under close scrutiny with the release of Marcel Ophüls’s documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié (1971), Robert Paxton’s book La France de Vichy (1973) and Louis Malle’s feature film Lacombe Lucien (1974).


In the seventh and eighth verses, Renaud vents his spleen on the working-class masses for accepting their lot and thereby abandoning their historical revolutionary mission. Drunken revelry on 14 July and seaside holidays in August evoke the pathetic pleasures sanctioned by a parsimonious and manipulative government. The official celebrations of Bastille Day appear as the antithesis of the spontaneous festiveness which characterised May 1968, as a popular distraction rather than a renewal of revolutionary values. However, Renaud’s frustration with the working-class masses did not diminish his loyalty to the working-class cause. The vitriolic imagery of these verses represent a challenge to, rather than an outright rejection of, the working class. Renaud takes a similar stance to the working-class chansonniers of the nineteenth century, who were determined to goad their frightened or complacent listeners into action.


After berating the French working classes for allowing themselves to be governed like pawns, Renaud attacks what he considers to be the fascist tendencies of the French government:


Lorsqu’en septembre on assassine
un peuple et une liberté
au coeur de l’Amérique latine,
ils sont pas nombreux à gueuler.
Un ambassadeur se ramène,
bras ouverts il est accueilli,
le fascisme c’est la gangrène,
à Santiago comme à Paris.

The murder in September
of a people and their freedom,
in the heart of Latin America,
arouses few cries of protest.
An ambassador turns up
and is welcomed with open arms,
fascism is like gangrene,
Be it in Santiago or Paris.

Salvador Allende’s socialist "experiment" in Chile, which survived against all odds for nearly three years until Auguste Pinochet’s coup d’état on 11 September 1973, had enormous exemplary value not only for former soixante-huitards but also for the major French political parties. The French Right, whose grip on power was seriously threatened since the signing on 26 June 1972 of the "Programme Commun de Gouvernement" by the Parti Socialiste, the Parti Communiste and the left-wing of the Parti Radical, had sought to discredit Allende’s government and hastened to recognise Pinochet’s authority. Jean Daniel was one of the few French commentators to protest in his editorials of Le Nouvel observateur. On 17 September 1973 he pointed out:


The Chileans have experienced the problem – a theoretical one in France at the moment, but which may not remain so – of making a legal and peaceful transition to socialism. They have conducted this experiment for our benefit as well.

Daniel attacked the French government the following week for its precocious and zealous support of Pinochet’s authoritarian regime. Such support, he argued, paved the way for the subsequent atrocities perpetrated against Allende’s sympathisers:


There was one week to play with. The French government made quite sure it didn’t: the more crimes committed by the Chilean fascists, the more the French will fear the consequences of a left-wing electoral victory. This sordid and calculated self-interest is enough to make you feel sick.

Among Pinochet’s victims was the celebrated protest singer Victor Jara. Renaud opened his preface to Claude Fleouter’s Un Siècle de chansons (1988) by evoking Jara’s memory:


In September 1973, Chilean soldiers used their rifle butts to break the fingers of Victor Jara, a singer who supported Allende and the Government of Popular Unity, and then cut off his hands with an axe before executing him with a spray of machine-gun fire.

It is not clear whether Renaud already knew the horrific details of Jara’s fate when he wrote Hexagone; one can imagine nonetheless the profound emotions such knowledge might have provoked. Luckily for Renaud, the "gangrene" of fascism was less advanced in Paris than in Santiago: French authorities were content simply to ban Hexagone from the radio.


In the tenth and eleventh verses, Renaud returns to the material pleasures promoted by France’s capitalist system. He uses the wine harvest of October and November’s Car Show as a pretext for a scathing attack on the mercantile Epicureanism of the French and their slavish addiction to commodities such as "la bagnole, la télé, l’tiercé" ("cars, TV, the trifecta"). Paul Yonnet notes that "on 31 March 1974, after twenty years of existence, the trifecta stakes (at the Auteuil racetrack) beat a new record: 90.5 million francs." Yonnet adds that the tiercé had become so popular that communist politician Gaston Plissonnier felt obliged to reassure voters in the lead-up to the legislative elections of March 1973 that the Left’s "Programme Commun" contained no restrictive policies in relation to their favourite pastime. The consumerist values challenged by soixante-huitards six years earlier were thus flourishing when Renaud wrote Hexagone. Renaud himself continued to regard such pleasures as "the opium of the French people," a line which reiterated the soixante-huitards’ slogan: "commodities are the opium of the people."


In the final verse of Hexagone, Renaud imagines a Christmas blow-out reminiscent of Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film La Grande bouffe:



En décembre, c’est l’apothéose,
la grande bouffe et les p’tits cadeaux,
ils sont toujours aussi moroses,
mais y’a d’la joie dans les ghettos.
La Terre peut s’arrêter d’tourner,
ils rat’ront pas leur réveillon,
moi j’voudrais tous les voir crever,
étouffés de dinde aux marrons.

December is the highlight,
with presents and a big spread,
they’re still just as sullen,
but there’s joy in the ghettos.
They wouldn’t miss their party,
even if the Earth stood still,
I hope they all choke to death
on their Christmas turkey.

The four choruses which punctuate the twelve verses of Hexagone in the manner of seasonal or astrological changes further deflate French delusions of grandeur. The first chorus offers the following comparison between French and German leaders:


Etre né sous l’signe de l’hexagone
c’est pas c’qu’on fait de mieux en c’moment,
et le roi des cons, sur son trône,
j’parierais pas qu’il est all’mand.

To be born under the sign of the hexagon
isn’t the best you could do at the moment,
and I bet the king of dickheads, sitting on his throne,
Isn’t German.

This terse comparison was charged with historical connotations. Renaud wrote these lines at a time when De Gaulle’s hope of uniting Europe under France’s leadership seemed increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of West Germany’s superior political and economic clout. By this time too, Pompidou was worried by the prospect that socialist Chancellor Willy Brandt might align his nation’s interests with those of the USSR rather than America or Western Europe. Renaud’s comparison would have had further significance for a contemporary audience beginning to confront the extent of French collaboration with Nazi Germany and haunted by the demons of successive German occupations. More generally, the image of the French being ruled by a king rather than a president highlights the failure of revolutionary principles and could even be interpreted as an allusion to Giscard d’Estaing’s regal airs.


The comparison between France and Portugal in the second chorus was not a random one either. The Revolution of Carnations in April 1974, which achieved the extraordinary feat of deposing Europe’s oldest authoritarian regime with relatively little bloodshed, announced a period of intensive social reform during which the extreme-Left was particularly influential. Popular song had immense symbolic value in Portugal as well as Chile: on 25 April, Radio Renaissance played José Afonso’s Grândola vila morena – banned by Portuguese authorities – as the signal for the military coup which ushered in the revolution. Although a more moderate, parliamentary system of socialist democracy was established eighteen months later, the Revolution of Carnations resurrected for a brief period the lost hopes of May 1968.


After identifying "le roi des cons" as French in the third chorus, Renaud concludes with a provocative assertion notable for the audacious use of the adjective "bandant" – from the verb bander, meaning "to have an erection" – and, most importantly, for implicating the entire French population in the collapse of revolutionary ideals:


Etre né sous l’signe de l’hexagone,
on peut pas dire qu’ça soit bandant.
Si l’roi des cons perdait son trône,
y’aurait cinquante millions de prétendants.

To be born under the sign of the hexagon
isn’t exactly what you’d call a turn-on.
If the king of dickheads lost his throne,
there’d be fifty million pretenders.


One of the most significant features of Hexagone is the way it exposes and denounces the patriotic mythologising which characterised the trente glorieuses, or thirty years of economic prosperity which followed the Liberation. The term "hexagone" itself, usually employed to distinguish metropolitan France from its overseas departments and territories, must have seemed like an affront at a time when the French were being forced to question the Gaullist legacy while trying to cope with the effects of global recession and establish their authority within the newly-inaugurated European Community.


While it is difficult to think of a more virulently anti-patriotic song, it would be a mistake to interpret Hexagone as a crude exercise in nihilistic defeatism. Its disillusioned tone marks a break with the generous optimism of May 1968, yet the entire song resonates with that period’s revolutionary fervour. Its plethora of historical and international references is suggestive of the typically soixante-huitard call for permanent, worldwide revolution. Above all, it illustrates Jacques Attali’s assertion that "true revolutionary music describes not revolution itself but its absence." In another song on his first album, entitled Société, tu m’auras pas! Renaud proclaims his refusal to renounce the ideals of May 1968 and prophesies the return of the Commune of 1871, with which the May events were frequently compared:


Y’a eu Antoine avant moi,
y’a eu Dylan avant lui,
après moi qui viendra?
Après moi, c’est pas fini.
On les a récupérés,
oui, mais moi on m’aura pas.
Je tirerai le premier
et j’viserai au bon endroit.
J’ai chanté dix fois, cent fois,
j’ai hurlé pendant des mois,
j’ai crié sur tous les toits
ce que je pensais de toi,
société, société,
tu m’auras pas. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Demain, prends garde à ta peau,
à ton fric, à ton boulot,
car la vérité vaincra,
la Commune refleurira.

Before me there was Antoine,
and Dylan before him,
after me, who will it be?
After me, it’s not over.
They’ve been brought into line,
but that won’t happen to me.
I’ll shoot first
and I’ll aim well.
I’ve sung a hundred times,
I’ve screamed for months on end,
I’ve shouted from the rooftops
what I thought of you,
society, society,
you won’t get me. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Tomorrow, watch your back,
your money and your jobs,
because truth will out,
the Commune will rise again.


Hexagone and Société, tu m’auras pas! are striking for their defiant attachment to revolutionary aims at a time when such aims no longer seemed achievable to many former soixante-huitards themselves. Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman affirm in their vast study of the May generation:


This story, which began at the start of the 1960s, stops in 1975. We suspected as much during our endless interviews with the story’s heroes. They themselves ended their "confessions" at around this turning-point, when their collective enterprise, multi-faceted but propelled by a common inspiration, broke up into individual destinies. The withdrawal from this enterprise took many forms: the return to self-contemplation, to family, children, career, study, community life, religion . . . At the sale of the century, obsolete ideologies were up for grabs.

However, the longevity of a song like Hexagone, attributable in part to the allusive, almost allegorical way in which Renaud evokes specific historical events, also suggests that the death of revolutionary aspirations in the mid-1970s was less final or widespread than is sometimes thought. Although the song was never released as a single and was never a hit in show business terms, it acquired the status of an anthem among Renaud’s fans. According to James Corbett, Hexagone was "on the lips of every teenager" during the heyday of SOS-Racisme in the mid-1980s.


To promote his first album, Renaud presented a short recital over three weeks in June 1975 at La Pizza du Marais, a café-théâtre run by Lucien Gibara, where many exponents of the nouvelle chanson française of the early 1970s were given their first break. According to Renaud’s brother, "the audience was extremely confused by the eclectic nature of the program." Notwithstanding the delinquent tone which suffused Renaud’s lyrics, one can imagine listeners not knowing what to make of the relationship between an acerbic protest song like Hexagone, with its topical themes, gravity and Dylanesque sound, and an exuberant realist song like La Java sans joie, with its nostalgic, playful aspects and melodious accordion riffs. A knowledge of the historical complexities of May 1968 may have helped them to see the common threads which tied these diverse elements together. Even so, it was somewhat unusual for politically militant gauchisme to coexist with hedonistic revolt; these represented contrasting, and sometimes opposing currents of the May movement. Furthermore, while the "eclecticism" of Renaud’s early repertoire was more a sign of creative ferment than confusion, he was yet to impose his own voice. This emerged more fully in the second half of the 1970s, along with the cause célèbre which had been latent in his first album: the delinquent youth of the Parisian grands ensembles.