Rocker of ages

At 66, France's Elvis, Johnny Hallyday, still has fans across the generations and if it is up to him, he won't be letting them down

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An ageing rock singer falls seriously ill. He receives a get well message from the president of his country, stars stream to his bedside and two men assumed to be fans attack a surgeon amid allegations of botched operation for a slipped disc. To the French, none of this - except, perhaps, the attack - is surprising. Johnny Hallyday is not just a pop star but, no less than Edith Piaf or Zinédine Zidane, a national institution. In half a century at the top of his trade, he has sold 100 million records and attracted 25 million people to live shows.

The relentless round of concerts continued this year even though he had undergone surgery for cancer of the colon. Before he was taken to hospital with an infection and induced into a coma in Los Angeles last week, he was planning to resume his latest tour in January. Hallyday is now 66 and it was billed as a farewell, but few believed he was contemplating a slippers-and-pipe retirement. Hallyday was born Jean-Phillippe Smet to a Belgian father and French mother in the Parisian ninth arrondissement. His parents separated soon after his birth and his early years were unconventional and lonely, in the care of an aunt who was constantly touring with her daughters, both dancers.

But the stage life made a strong impression. He learnt to dance and play guitar and, by the time he was nine, was able to perform fill-in slots as the girls changed costumes. His first hit, Souvenirs, Souvenirs coincided with his 17th birthday. The Presley film Loving You was a powerful inspiration in adolescence and, fittingly, Hallyday was soon to become known as the French Elvis. He has enthusiastically embraced the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, with a series of glamorous wives and girlfriends and a taste for fast cars, motorbikes and cocaine.

Despite the advancing years, his lived-in features are still a common sight on the front covers of glossy magazines. His thoughts on a range of subjects are taken seriously. Beyond the Francophone world, however, French pop music falls on deaf ears and Hallyday is largely unknown. When French stars have international hits, they are seen as novelties without staying power. But at home, he can do little wrong. His popularity has hardly been affected by criticism of his tax exile in Switzerland or a rape allegation that dogged him for three years until he was finally cleared in 2006.

Although his success is sometimes attributed to his appeal to ordinary working people, Hallyday has Monsieur Tout le Monde (Mr Everyone) qualities that attract a broader cross-section of fans. Even those ambivalent about his music recognise the phenomenon. "Years ago, I went with a friend to a free concert he gave on the Champs de Mars," says Marianne Ferdinand, 32, a Parisian pedicurist. "The crowd was a revelation: from scraps of seven to rocking granddads of 77. No other artist except perhaps Gérard Depardieu reaches as diverse a public.

"Once I saw him in a Paris shop. At the checkout his card wouldn't work and someone had to pay for him; just like all the French, he has trouble with his credit cards!" The loyalty he attracts is impressive. A decorator working on properties in the south of France arrives at each job with a battered old ghetto blaster on which he plays Hallyday tapes non-stop. "I like other people, but there is no one like Johnny for me," he explains.

But what is the explanation for his enduring appeal? There may be several. Many critics say he has matured immensely as a live performer, his film work has demonstrated broader talents in recent years, and having a young photogenic wife, Laetitia, does no harm to his image as a ladies' man. Men who respect his rough-and-ready nature nod approvingly at his love of gruelling car rallies and Californian desert trips on his Harley-Davidson. Female fans warm to the paternal side that led to the adoption of two Vietnamese babies, one from an orphanage and the second from a social welfare centre.

Hallyday, for many, is France's complete working class hero. "He is all your rock'n'roll dreams come true," says Robb Johnson, an English singer/songwriter and, rare among the British, a staunch fan. "I can think of no other artist of similar intent and integrity, no other artist who can hold a stadium so closely in the palm of one hand. The closest in stature and authority and sheer rock 'n' rollability is Springsteen."