Les Francofolies de La Rochelle Pt 1: Controversy and Consensus

This month, the Francofolies festival, based in La Rochelle and dedicated to French chanson in all its forms, celebrated its 25th anniversary. Rockfort’s first report begins by looking at the controversy that overshadowed the event.

While the festival organisers doubtless wanted to focus on Francofolies’ milestone year, a long shadow was cast by the absence of Orelsan – a kind of French Mike Skinner – who had been dropped from the festival line-up following controversy over his track ‘Sale Pute’ (‘dirty whore’). In the song, Orelsan catches his girlfriend in the act with someone else, and proceeds to give a vivid and at times gynaecologically detailed account of how he feels like treating her as a result (and how he feels generally about certain types of women, including Paris Hilton). 


The debate over the song has extended beyond just the Francofolies, with many, including former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, attempting to earn a little easy political capital by making their feelings on the rapper known. Sock-faced singer-songwriter Cali, meanwhile, announced that he would be boycotting the festival in future, accusing the organisers of ‘putting to death’ an artist in the early stages of his career. As ever in these cases, though, the ongoing debate has probably done no harm to Orelsan’s career at all – everyone’s talking about him. As far as the subject matter goes, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before, and the whole affair speaks of that commonplace failure (or lack of willingness) to contemplate the distinction between portrayal and advocacy, especially when it comes to rappers. In France it’s become something of flashpoint for freedom of expression debates, but for Les Francofolies, the exclusion of Orelsan, and the subsequent hand-wringing from its director Gérard Pont – along the lines of ‘maybe we were a bit hasty and misjudged the public mood’ – has served to underline its highly consensual (or consensuel, a word more commonly and pertinently employed in French than in English) nature. 

In musical terms, what this means is that, particularly on its main outdoor stage (some of the festival acts play in theatres and even a casino) we get a lot of variété (mainstream, establishment) artists with cross-generational appeal. A chance to see Jane Birkin is not to be sniffed at, of course, but then there are also the likes of Raphael and Renan Luce to contend with, dull, doe-eyed, spleen-lite chansonniers who are primarily targeted at the teenage female demographic (the girls scrawl the name of their favourite on their chests in eyeliner) but who are blandly charming and motherable enough to pull in older generations; in many ways, they’re the Paolo Nutinis and James Morrisons of the Gallic world. The festival also boasted no less than two graduates of TV reality contests, Olivia Ruiz and Julien Doré, both of whom have been granted artistic credibility because they were in some way the ‘quirky’ contestants who had no truck with the whole shallow process in the first place – Olivia Ruiz was the ‘outsider’ who apparently never knew what she was letting herself in for (she dedicated her performance at Les Francofolies to ‘Monsieur Orelsan’, incidentally), while Doré was acclaimed for apparently deconstructing the show from within – by doing things like this
Overall, you don’t get the richer, more outré native pickings of Les Transmusicales de Rennes. Which is not to suggest that there was nothing to admire – there will be more on that in the second report – and even acts we didn’t like still gave us plenty to chew on.
Sadly we weren’t able to stay for the whole festival. Missing John and Jehn was ok as we’ve seen them numerous times, but I was curious about Birdy Nam Nam, the turntable wizards who appeared to jump on the Ed Banger bandwagon with their Yuksek-assisted second album ‘Manual for Successful Rioting’ – somewhat cynically, I think, but catching them live might have clarified that. Also unavoidably avoided were two remaining rappers, Oxmo Puccino and Sefyu. The latter, in spite of the stilted and somewhat clichéd French hardcore production on his albums, has a pretty astonishing voice – even if you can’t follow the lyrics, check the hiccupping thing he does with his vowels on this:
Apparently Arsenal were interested in him at once stage until an injury brought his football career to a premature end. It’s also 90% certain that he once helped my girlfriend with her bags on a coach, so he gets extra points for gentlemanly conduct.
The biggest disappointment of the festival: missing out on an interview with mythical (and Steve Davis-approved) prog rockers Magma, performing a concert to celebrate 40 years of the group’s formation. It would presumably have entailed meeting founder Christian Vander and his wife Stella, the only original members of the group remaining in the current line-up. I know Magma more by reputation than anything, but it seemed like an opportunity not to be passed up. With the interview apparently confirmed, I started to get quite nervous – I contacted Rockfort and Mojo contributor Kieron Tyler for suggestions on what to ask, went online to listen to as much by the group as I could find, in the process revisiting this gem that I had seen once before thanks to Magma obsessive Rhodri Marsden’s blog, and managed to attain a reasonable fluency in Kobaïan (ok, kidding on the last bit…). Only when I get to the France 1, the moored ship I was supposed to be meeting them on, did I phone up the contact number I’d been given to be told that the meeting had been postponed - indefinitely. Merde, as they say.
Part two of our report will follow imminently, with more about who we did actually see/meet/like!
David McKenna