French is still very much the language of love, according to a survey on the language-learning site Babbel.
So here’s a list of ten of my favourite French love songs – a soundtrack with a difference to help you celebrate Valentine’s Day, or the perfect excuse at any time of year to listen to some of the best French songs ever written.
Incidentally, two of the songs in the list below (Aimer à perdre la raison by Jean Ferrat, and Édith Piaf’s Hymne à l’amour) were named by readers of French newspaper Le Figaro in February 2017 in the newspaper’s top ten love songs of all time.
First of all, five modern(ish) songs…
1. Zazie – J’envoie valser
Zazie, the stage name of (wait for it) Isabelle Marie Anne de Truchis de Varennes, spent time working as a model for Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld before starting her singing career. Her stage name is inspired by the title character in Raymond Queneau’s short story Zazie dans le métro.
The title of this song, which means something like ‘I’m packing it in’ or ‘I’m chucking it away’, refers to the jewellery and flowers that the narrator sees other couples give each other. She tells her partner that their bond, on the other hand, is so strong that they don’t need to give each other material things to act as proof of their love.
If you liked this song, why not listen to: Un Point, C’est Toi, another of Zazie’s songs.
2. Mes Aïeux – La grande déclaration
The French-Canadian folk band Mes Aïeux, or ‘my ancestors’, sing here about a couple declaring their love for each other ‘with no church, no speech, no wedding ring and no ceremony’. The song title translates into English as ‘the great declaration’.
Why not also try: Dégénération, by the same group.
3. Fauve – Les hautes lumières
Fauve, who took their name from the French film Nuits Fauves, were an ‘art collective’ made up of actors, singers, visual artists and technicians who came together in Paris in 2010.
Les hautes lumières (literally, ‘the high lights’), is one of my favourite songs performed by them. Have a listen on YouTube below.
If you enjoyed this, why not listen to: Haut les Cœurs (which can be translated into English as ‘chin up’ or ‘don’t give up’), or Lettre à Zoé, both by Fauve.
4. Louane – Jour 1
After reaching the semi-final in the second series of The Voice in France, Louane released her first album, went into acting and won an award at the Césars (France’s version of the Oscars) – all before the age of 20.
In Jour 1 (Day 1), Louane sings about how it feels to start a relationship with a new partner, and how she’ll always remember the first day of the new relationship.
If you liked this song, try: Louane’s song Avenir, or her cover of Je Vole by singer Michel Sardou.
5. Carla Bruni – Raphaël
Before becoming Mrs Bruni-Sarkozy, Carla Bruno was most famous for her success as a singer. In Raphaël, she sings about her love affair with Raphaël Enthoven, a French philosophy professor who she had a relationship with from 2000 to 2007.
If you’d like to listen to more Carla Bruni songs, check out:
Quelqu’un m’a dit (‘someone told me’), or Si la photo est bonne.
And to finish off with, a more traditional selection:
6. Édith Piaf – Hymne à l’amour
Édith Piaf wrote this song, ‘a hymn to love’, in 1949 about her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan.
Cerdan was killed several months later, in October 1949, in a plane crash. He had taken the plane from Paris to visit Piaf in New York, while she was touring in America.
The song’s been covered in French by Patricia Kaas and Céline Dion, and in English by Canadian songwriter Jeff Buckley.
It’s also worth having a listen to: Milord and La foule, also by Édith Piaf.
7. Jacques Brel – La chanson des vieux amants
In the ‘song of old lovers’, Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel puts himself in the shoes of one half of a couple who’ve been together for twenty years.
He tells his lover that they both know each others’ ‘magic spells and enchantments’ and that each piece of furniture in their bedroom ‘remembers the fragments from old storms’ as, like Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, they continue to wage a ‘tender war’ against each other.
The narrator knows that his partner has had several affairs and that their relationship together has been challenged over the years. He assures her that he’ll love her ‘from the clear dawn until the end of the day’, and even suggests that ‘the most dangerous thing for lovers is to live in peace’.
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try: Quand on n’a que l’amour (‘when we only have love’), which started off Brel’s career in 1956, and which is also rather appropriate for Valentine’s Day?
8. Jean Ferrat – Aimer à perdre la raison
Jean Ferrat became famous after setting several poems by French poet Louis Aragon to music.
One of these was Aimer à perdre la raison (‘loving to insanity’ or ‘loving to distraction’), in which Ferrat sings of loving someone to the point of not knowing what to say and of having your loved one as your ‘only horizon’.
If you liked this, why not try these versions of the song by: French singer Shy’m, or by the charity supergroup Les Enfoirés, available here?
9. Barbara – Ma plus belle histoire d’amour, c’est vous
The French singer Monique Serf, known by her stage name Barbara, released this, which is often translated as ‘my most beautiful love story is you‘, in 1966.
She wrote it the year before to thank her loyal fan base, after performing at the Bobino concert hall in Paris.
Why not also have a listen to: Nantes and L’Aigle Noir (the black eagle), also by Barbara, or this cover by Patrick Bruel.
10. Renaud – Mistral gagnant
In this song, which I also write about here, Renaud imagines himself telling his young daughter about his childhood memories, which featured the mistral gagnant, a type of sweet which inspired the song’s title.
As well as singing about his love for his daughter, Renaud sings about how important it is to love life, despite all the difficulties and problems that it brings.
Why not also have a listen to: Morgane de toi, also by Renaud.
How about you? What are your favourite French songs? Let me know in the comments section below!
5 Comments Add yours
I love stumbling upon posts like this – I’m always on the lookout for recommendations for French songs, films etc. I’ve heard of a fair few of the singers on your list, but some are new to me. Michel Sardou is such a good singer – I love the film that Louane is in where she covers his songs too! I also really like Calogero and Cœur de Pirate, but Serge Gainsbourg is one of my absolute favourites – not for the misogyny, but for the multiple layers of meaning to his songs.
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Thanks so much for your comment, that’s so lovely to hear! 🙂 I love Michel Sardou as well – I still haven’t seen the film that Louane acted in, but hopefully will get around to it soon! When I lived in France, they used to always play his song Les lacs du Connemara at parties – it always reminds me of being in France! I haven’t heard Calogero’s music yet – which songs would you recommend? Ahh yep Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant, I always think his songwriting’s so clever 🙂
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It’s a classic cheesy rom-com, but I loved all the songs in it 🙂 Recently I’ve not been listening to much music, but ‘Un jour au mauvais endroit’ is my favourite song by Calogero, and ‘En apesanteur’ is good too. I love how music is tied to memories – for me, Michel Sardou’s music reminds me of Alsace, as that’s where I first saw La Famille Bélier and came across his music. I’m in awe of how he wrote songs with so many layers of meaning – one of my final year assignments was on his music and I’m glad it didn’t put me off him, as so often essay writing makes me resent the subject by the end of it!
That’s so cool that you wrote an assignment on his songs 🙂 what aspect did you look at? I only started getting into French music during my year abroad, and didn’t think of looking at it for my disssrstion or any uni projects until it was too late, which is a shame! It must have been so interesting to study his songs for an essay 🙂