French at Eurovision: The First 40 Years
Paris and romance; coffee and croissants; a good Bordeaux and a fulsome cheese platter; even a serving of steak-frites (sorry, I’m hungry!).
Somethings just go together, and this is particularly true of the quintessential pairing that forms the subject of this week’s history article: the French language and the Eurovision Song Contest (or, to give its original name, the Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne).
Given the longevity of that partnership, we will today be looking at its first 40 years only.
The First Decade: 1956 to 1965
Although hosted in Italian in the Swiss city of Lugano, the French influence at the inaugural 1956 contest was marked: four French-speaking nations competed (Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland), the story-telling, classically French chanson style of music dominated, and a record 50% of entries (seven out of the fourteen) were performed en français. In addition, of course, Lys Assia's victory for the host country with 'Refrain' meant that French was the first language to record a Eurovision win.
Whilst the percentage of entries sung in French would never hit those heights again, and that percentage in fact dipped to below 20% in 1959 (which saw Luxembourg sit out the year but the debut of francophone Monaco with 'Mon ami Pierrot'), French-performing artists would triumph at a further five contests over this period.
France's André Claveau, Jacqueline Boyer and Isabelle Aubret were victorious at two-year intervals with 'Dors, mon amour' (1958), 'Tom Pillibi' (1960) and 'Un premier amour' (1962), whilst Luxembourg took home the trophy twice with entries that represented firsts in the contest: 'Nous les amoreux' (1961), performed by Jean-Claude Pascal, was later revealed by Pascal to tell the tale of a thwarted homosexual relationship, and 'Poupée de cire, poupée de son', interpreted by France Gall and written by the legendary Serge Gainsbourg, truly injected the "pop music" vibes of the 1960s into the contest.
The Next Ten Years: 1966 to 1975
The following decade would mirror the preceding one in several respects. Each year's contest would see between three and five performances in French from the sixteen to nineteen competitors, and the French language would chalk up a further four wins.
Frida Boccara's classic ballad 'Un jour, un enfant' for France was one of the four tied winners at the 14th edition of Eurovision in 1969; 'Un banc, un arbre, une rue' (1971) performed by Séverine became Monaco's sole winning entry (to date); and Luxembourg achieved back-to-back wins in 1972 and 1973 with 'Après toi' by Vicky Leandros and 'Tu te reconnaîtras' by Anne-Marie David, meaning three consecutive winners in French in the early 1970s.
There are two additional incidents of note during this period: 1974 marked the first occasion on which France opted not to participate in the contest - a late withdrawal following the death of President Georges Pompidou earlier in the week - and, following the relaxation of Eurovision's language rules, French was used (alongside English) for the first-time by a non-French speaking country, namely Norway and the Bendik Singers' 'It's Just A Game' (1973).
A Decade of Change: 1976 to 1985
The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a further decline in the use of French at Eurovision. I980 marked the start of Monaco's 25-year absence from the contest; in 1981 and 1983, only 10% of entries were performed in the language; in 1976 and 1977 respectively, Switzerland and Belgium chose to sing in English, the contest's newly-emerging lingua franca; France did not compete in 1982 after the Head of Entertainment at then broadcaster TF1 criticised the "mediocrity" of the songs and dubbed Eurovision a "monument to drivel"; and in 1985, France was the sole competing country to perform entirely in French.
French-sung songs were successful twice for two different countries during this period: Marie Myriam became the toast of France by winning with 'L'oiseau et l'enfant' (1977) and Corrine Hermès' dramatic ballad 'Si la vie est cadeau' (1983) secured the coveted trophy for Luxembourg. However, both victories remain the most recent wins for the two previously highly successful French-speaking countries.
The Final Ten Years (for now!): 1986 to 1995
The scarcity of entries in French continued throughout these years, with the 35th edition of Eurovision in 1990 marking the sole high point when three countries submitted French songs: whilst Belgium's 'Macédomienne' and Luxembourg's 'Quand je te rêve' ended the night in the bottom half of the table, France's Joëlle Ursull and her (English-titled) song 'White and Black Blues' tied for second place.
By contrast, Nina Morato's performance of 'Je suis un vrai garçon' for France was the only French sung at the 1994 contest, as Belgium had been "relegated" following its low score in the previous year, the Swiss entry was in Italian and Luxembourg did not compete for only the second time, bringing its 38-year involvement with the contest to an end.
In addition, despite the dominance of Ireland over this period and the country's four wins, the mid-to-late 1980s saw two French-language, upbeat "bops" crowned Eurovision victors. 13-year-old Belgian Sandra Kim convincingly topped the scoreboard in 1986 with 'J'aime la vie', whereas the now global superstar Céline Dion pipped the UK's Scott Fitzgerald to the post, winning the 1988 contest by just one point with 'Ne partez pas sans moi' for Switzerland.
Looking Ahead: The Past 25 Years (1996 to 2020)
So, what did 1996 to 2020 have in store for the French language?
Which countries opted to perform in the so-called "language of love"?
And what success, if any, did that choice bring?
Join me for for further consideration of this unique relationship in a follow-up article next month!