Paris' Philharmonie celebrates Renaud, French poet, rebel and social chronicler

Photo shooting for the album cover "Laisse béton" - backward slang meaning "Forget it" - released in 1977.
Photo shooting for the album cover "Laisse béton" - backward slang meaning "Forget it" - released in 1977. © David Séchan

An exhibition entitled "Renaud, putain d’expo!" has opened at the Paris Cité de la Musique, looking at the life and work of French singer Renaud, who rose to fame in France in 1977 with the release of his first album, broadly influenced by the events of May 68 and the protest songs of Bob Dylan.


Johanna Copans, co-curator of Renaud putain d’expo! (Renaud, damned exhibition!) told RFI about the man she considers to be one of the greatest contemporary "poets and social chroniclers" in France.

Q: The Philharmonie de Paris is dedicating an exhibition to the singer Renaud until May 2021, can you tell us about him? 

Johanna Copans: Renaud Séchan, aka Renaud, was born in Paris in 1952. He has travelled through several generations, almost five decades.

He started out as a street singer then a café-concert singer and became very famous in France with a record in 1977 and a song called Laisse béton ["Forget it" in 'verlan' or backward slang] which propelled him to the forefront of the stage. 

Renaud built himself with May 68, he celebrated his 16th birthday on the barricades. 

It comes from the legacy of May 68 to reject any form of authority whether it be parents, school, religion. It leaves traces and it is also a form of heritage from the political far-left, of which he was a member. And maybe from a Protestant education, which is very attached to culture and independence of spirit.

He is a very committed singer who led major political and social struggles from the 1970s to the 2000s. We can say, for example, that it is largely thanks to him that Ingrid Betancourt was freed after having been a hostage in the jungle [in Colombia] for many years.

He was also very close to François Mitterrand, the former President of the Republic in 1980 and 1988. He was also very committed to ecology with Greenpeace.

Renaud, Porte d’Orléans near Paris, 1976
Renaud, Porte d’Orléans near Paris, 1976 © David Séchan

He is also a very great popular singer because he has brought into his songs a way of speaking and singing with swear words, 'verlan' and slang. He has introduced into his songs things that are very intimate and very close to us. 

He is a singer who means a lot to his audience. The public is very loyal to Renaud, not only in France but also in Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Quebec.

Q: A part of the exhibition is devoted to Dylan and Springsteen, how was Renaud influenced by these two singers?

JC: Renaud was very much influenced by the protest song. He claims to be a protest singer because he listened to Dylan a lot, he is a fan of Dylan and in the exhibition the photography comes from his living room. 

He listened a lot to Dylan thanks to Hugues Auffray who translated Bob Dylan's songs into French. This way of singing alone with his harmonica is also an attitude he has on stage.

I would say he is both a poet and a social columnist. In the world of song, he is one of the greatest poets of our time like Georges Brassens and he is one of the best social columnists who is able to describe society with astonishing accuracy.

He was also a fan of Bruce Springsteen, he even had the project in 1980 to actually translate him at the time when Springsteen was not very well known, he had not yet released Born in the USA

The cover of "Marchand de cailloux" released in 1991 pays tribute to Springsteen.
The cover of "Marchand de cailloux" released in 1991 pays tribute to Springsteen. © RFI

He translated Springsteen's songs into French and the manuscripts were found. He wanted to make a record of it and then Springsteen became famous and so Renaud abandoned his project.

But for Renaud, Springsteen is perhaps his favourite singer today in the English-speaking world because he also represents this commitment. He made a tribute to Springsteen by making the same record cover with the jeans pockets on the back.

Q: There are not many female characters in the exhibition, why?

JC: Renaud wrote a song Miss Maggie which almost created a diplomatic incident between France and England because of the Channel Tunnel construction projects.

Renaud did this song in homage to women but in the chorus he basically says that you can love all women except Mrs Thatcher. This song sparked great feminist causes at the time and it was translated into English but never released in England.

The album 'Boucan d'enfer' was mastered in 2002 in the legendary Abbey Road studio in London.
The album 'Boucan d'enfer' was mastered in 2002 in the legendary Abbey Road studio in London. © Titouan Lamazou

Women, they are sung in an indirect way rather under an intimate plane like Dominique sa "gonzesse" or Romane because they have the same initials Renaud Séchan and Romane Serda - RS.

We have decided not to put too much emphasis on his private life.

Afterwards, it may be a question of generation to talk less about women before than today in the songs. We even noticed it with the musicians when he played at the Mutualité concert hall in 1995.

It was exceptional because about fifteen women violinists accompanied him and at the piano, it was a woman too. Otherwise we always have male guitarists, in fact, it's a rather masculine environment all the same.

Q: Would you say that Renaud reaches a wide audience, not necessarily from his political side? Everybody knows a Renaud song even if they are not a fan.

JC: Renaud reaches a very large audience that is trans-generational because in fact he talks a lot about the theme of childhood in his songs.

He talks a lot about about his daughter Lolita who grows up in songs until she becomes an adult, and his son Malone.

Photo shooting for the cover album "Morgane de toi" recorded in Los Angeles in 1983.
Photo shooting for the cover album "Morgane de toi" recorded in Los Angeles in 1983. © David Séchan

And as he introduces himself to us in the songs and as he speaks to us, we have the impression that we find our childhood or our children again and therefore Renaud's audience is very large.

Children love Renaud also because there is this slightly funny, magical and nostalgic universe that can be found in almost all the records.

Mistral gagnant [released in 1985] is the favourite song of all French people ["Favourite French song of all times ", according to a 2015 opinion poll].

This song is about sweets that no longer exist. They were a kind of little powder, which was both a little sweet and sour. The candy is a little bit our childhood that is beautiful and has disappeared, which we are nostalgic about and that we would like to taste again.

This song is beautiful because it tells the story of childhood and its disappearance. It is addressed to his daughter and I think that everyone who listens to Mistral Gagnant knows that this song is timeless. It has no era and maybe in 200 years we will still be listening to it.

► The exhibition Renaud, "Putain d’expo!" will run until 2 May 2021.

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