There are two big news items getting a lot of play in the French media today. The first is the death of singer Jean Ferrat. He has been called the fourth great French-language singer of the post-war period, along with Jaques Brel, Georges Brassens, and Léo Ferré. I'm not sure any of these men are well-known in America, with the exception of Brel.
Jean Ferrat was committed to leftwing causes, and many his songs were political. His sympathies lay with the French Communist Party, but he never became a card-carrying member. He sang songs with lyrics written by the French Communist poet Louis Aragon.
Ferrat's heyday was the 1960s and the 1970s, until the Soviet Union clamped down on Eastern Europe, occupying Prague in 1968, and then invaded Afghanistan in 1979. A lot of French Communist Party admirers and followers that I knew in Paris back then became deeply disillusioned over that decade — just as a lot of us were deeply disillusioned by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and then Watergate, and then events in Iran, and then, if I dare say, the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House.
One of Ferrat's songs that I remember best from those years was called La Femme est l'avenir de l'homme — "Woman is the future of man" (or should that be mankind?). Ferrat had a deep, fairly melodic voice, and songs like that one had a clear message having to do with both the class struggle and the role of women in society.
I hummed and sang the song as it played on the radio in the mid-70s, when I was studying French and teaching English in Paris. Ferrat was 79 when he died yesterday. His passing is another reminder that French politics and culture have changed radically since that long-ago era (and not necessarily in good ways...).
The other big news item in the French media today is the regional elections being held today. All the polls have been showing the French Socialist Party's slates running slightly ahead of President Sarkozy's UMP party candidates. There is a real chance that all the French regions, 23 of them, will have Socialist-majority councils after the second round of elections in few days.
The regional elections aren't a referendum on Sarkozy's popularity as president, but having his party come in second all around the country is not a good thing for him. It's embarrassing, at the least. Tonight we'll see if the polls have been accurate. A lot depends on voter turnout.