Who's who in France... (#1) To understand a country you should know some people who are very well known by everyone in the country, even if their fame has not crossed the border. Here are some examples. See also 2008 men-women of the Year

 

 Living personalities    
Luc Besson (born 1959), the very successful film-maker and producer (Nikita, The Fifth Element, Taken, Taxi, to name a few) is well-known in the US and was awarded an Oscar ; he is also famous in France but his image is not good : too successful, too rich, too commercial, a frequent attitude of the French toward people who do not conform to the stereotype « an artist must be poor and misunderstood ». In 2010, he built a huge studio (« Cite du Cinema ») in an old factory near Paris and his many (French) enemies fear that it could be another success….

Paul Bocuse (born 1926) : grounded in traditional regional cooking, this great innovator has shaken up French cuisine. A"classical" chef, he insists on the quality of products and spends a lot of time away from his (magnificient) restaurant near Lyon to promote French cuisine in Japan.

Jose Bové (born 1960), a symbol of anti-globalization, is famous for having destroyed a new MacDonald's restaurant in a small town in France as a protest against the " malbouffe " (i.e. unhealthy way of eating). The leader of a Farmer's Associatio,n he was also sentenced to jail for the destruction of a field of genetically modified corn. He lived in Berkeley as a child and speaks relatively good English . He made a very poor score in the 2007 presidential election. Read more about him and about some of his voters, the altermondialistes.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit (born 1945) was one the leaders of the French student revolt in 1968 and by far the most charismatic. Totally bi-cultural, he is a German citizen and was expelled from France as such. In Germany, he became one of the leaders of "Die Grünen", then deputy mayor of Frankfurt. He is now an European deputy, the president of the Green and one of the most respected members of the Parliament. He is very popular in France and frequently invited on TV where, an excellent debater, he advocates for European issues. In 2009, he lead the French Greens for the elections to the European Parliament and made a brilliant score.He is the living example of what Europe can become.

Jean-François Copé (born 1964) is one of the handful of people who can say that their objective in life is to become president of France in 2017 without people cracking up when they hear it. A typical example of the French elite, he graduated from ENA (of course), he has been elected mayor of Meaux, deputy and appointed member of the government as the Minister of Budget. He is currently the leader of the Majority at the Chamber ; he is very intelligent, very charming, rather arrogant and overly ambitious.

 

 

Jack Lang (born 1935) was President François Mitterrand's flamboyant Minister of Culture in the 1980-90s ; among his most famous achievements are the Fête de la Musique (every year in June since 1982), the building of many major new monuments in Paris (including the new Opera House, the Grande Arche, the Louvre Pyramid,...).

Jean Marie Le Pen (born 1930) is the incarnation of the ugly racist and xenophobic France ; the President of the Front National, the extreme right party, he has fought for decades to keep immigrants away from the country with little success until in 2002, thanks to the division of the right wing parties and the stupidity of the left, he came second in the first round of the presidential elections with almost 17% of the votes ; in the second round, he lost to Chirac with only 20% ; he is " famous " for having declared in a interview that " the gas chambers are only a detail in the history of WW2 ". He is now succeeded by his daughter, Marine, less frightening, but still....

Bernard-Henry Levy (born 1948) is a typical example of French "intellectuels" ; once a "new philosopher" with a couple of rather brilliant books ("la barbarie à visage humain), he is now somewhere between a writer and a show-biz hero, with his wife, the glamourous actress Arielle Dombasle. In 2005, his book "American Vertigo" was quite controversial. He is very rich.

Xavier Niel, a former hacker (born 1968) is an internet bilionnaire (wealth >6 b.Euros) ; he owns Free, a phone operator, and hundreds of companies and he finances and supports start-ups (he financed the Halle Freyssinet, in Paris, «the largest incubator in the world » with 1000 start-ups in 2017) ; he says that « France is a tax heaven for start-ups».

Thomas Piketty (born 1971) is the the author of Capital in the 21rst Century, a very controversial but very successful book in the US. A graduate of the best French "Grande Ecole" (Ecole Normale Supérieure) and of the London School of Economics, he taught at MIT and now at the Ecole d'Economie de Paris (EHESS). He has studied economic inequalities, with a strong historical background and extensive data on individual income. In one word, his conclusion is that the economic system does not regulate by itself and wealth tends to concentrate excessively at the expenses of investment and economic growth : a progressive fiscal policy is necessary to reach an economic optimum. He is close to the Socialist Party but not a member.

Gérard Depardieu (born 1948) is one of the best loved (and best paid) French actors. A quintessential Frenchman, he was (among other characters) a wonderful Cyrano de Bergerac (read about the play and some of the reasons for its popularity for the French). His 170 movies have been viewed by more than 210 million viewers (as of 2011). In December 2012, he moved to Belgium and claimed Belgian citizenship, declaring he was sick and tired of French taxes, having paid more than 145 m Euros income tax during his career (85% of his income in 2012). A few days later, he was made a Russian citizen by Wladimir Putin.

Jean Dujardin (born 1972) won the "Best Actor Oscar" in 2012 for the film "The Artists". He became very popular in France with a serie of hundreds (4,000!) of very short (2 or 3 minutes each) TV scenes with his parner (and wife) Alexandra Lamy, "Un gars et une fille" ("a guy and a gal"), showing the everyday life of a young couple ; everybody their age identified to them.

Johnny Hallyday (born 1943) is still among the most popular singers in France ; a rock star, he is one of the few French singers who can fill a 80,000-seat stadium several days in a row with his spectacular performances ; even though many people mock his corny music, his unsophisticated way of talking and his look of an aging rocker, most like him as a person and follows with indulgence his (many) successive marriages with younger and younger girls.

François Hollande (born 1954) was elected President of France in 2012. He is a typical member of the French political establishment (a ENA graduate) and he was the head of the Socialist party for a decade. He is a social-democrat reformist but tighted to the old sacred cows of the French Marxist left. As a person, he is very charming and funny. As the President, he is the least popular of all presidents of France (less than 20% of the people say they like it after two years of his 5-year term).

Michel Houellebecq (born 1958) is a brilliant and controversial writer. A sort of a prophet, he has been called the first French writer of the XXIrst Century, with his very iconoclastic perception of the world, often very graphic.

Nicolas Hulot (born 1955) is a very popular TV producer of programs about ecology with his TV show "Ushuaïa" ; his Foundation Nicolas Hulot is very influential and he plays a significant political role by demanding politicians to include ecological concerns in their programs. More about environment.

Other names suggested by visitors include : Pierre Boulez, Jean-Marie Le Clezio, etc... Please email me if you had a question to ask or a suggestion for another mini-bio (also see the section " most popular French personalities ").

 

Nicolas Sarkozy (born 1955) was the rising star of the French political life on the Right wing. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he is rather different from the traditional French political leaders and clearly makes them look outdated : he is a lawyer (and not a civil servant), he is outspoken, ambitious, pragmatic, hyper-active and direct. He managed to put himself in the role of the leader of the French center-right political life and was brilliantly elected president on May 6, 2007. In 2012, he lost to François Hollande.

Bernard Tapie (born 1940) was a business wonder-man in the 1960s ; he became very rich by taking over bankrupt companies, was the president of the Olympique de Marseille, the best football team in France, and even briefly a minister of Urban Affairs in a socialist cabinet ; he lost all his money in two years and two or three lawsuits ; then he became a TV presenter and an actor ; a charming character, he is still popular and is famous for having declared in court " it is true that I lied, but it was in good faith ". In 2009, after an arbitrage between him and the bank (Credit Lyonnais) he accused to have betrayed him ten years earlier, he won and received almost $400 million, making him, once more, one of the richest men in France. Read more about lying in France.

Simone Veil (born 1928) was the Minister of Justice who passed the law legalizing abortion in 1976, amidst a huge controversy where she demonstrated impressive political courage and moral strength against her extreme-right opponents ; she survived Auschwitz, where she had been deported with her family.

Cedric Villani (born 1973) is a French mathematician. He was awarded the Fields Medal in 2010. He teaches at the University of Lyon and heads the Institut Henri Poincarré (the home the best French mathematicians). A very talented speaker, he is very charming and modest. A vibrant promoter of maths, he represents the best France can offer. (credit)

They've disappeared from the radar screen......(read about them)

Olivier Besancenot, Rachida Dati, Bernard Kouchner, Arlette Laguiller, Jean Marie Messier, Zinedine Zidane.

 Personalities of the recent past (read about them)    2008 men-women of the Year

AbbéPierre, Simone de Beauvoir, Coco Chanel, Coluche,

...and historical figures....

Jules Ferry, Jean Jaurès, Jean Moulin

Other names suggested by visitors include : Yves Saint-Laurent, Soeur Emmanuelle, etc...

 

2008 was a difficult year indeed. The French mood was not very high. As usual, articles such as "Is the French culture dead or dying?" flourished. But the situation of the country was not so bad and there were French winners. If you haven't heard of them, it's because the US press doesn't do its job and mentions only American winners! It was sort of refreshing to read an article like " The French of the Year 2008 " (le Figaro, 20/12/2008) which listed :

  • Jean-Marie Le Clezio, Nobel Prize 2008 (literature), for a very personal and open-to-the-world body of work
  • Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prizes 2008 (medicine) for the discovery of HIV
  • Marion Cotillard, Oscar for Best Actress 2008 for " La Môme "
  • Jean Nouvel, Pritzker Prize 2008 (architecture) for his work
  • Alain Bernard, 3 medals at the Beijung Olympic Games (swimming)
  • Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, five times World Champion (car rallies)
  • Joel Robuchon, 24 Michelin Stars in all (chef)
  • Laurent Cantet, Gold Palm at the Cannes Festival (film-maker) for his movie " Entre les murs "

Other winners listed in the article include :
- actors and actresses : Mathieu Amalric, Dany Boon
- Film-maker : Guillaume Canet
- singers : Roberto Alagna, Carla Bruni, Nathalie Dessay (Laurence Olivier Award)
- musician : Justice, Pedro Winter
- sportsmen and sportswomen : Julien Absalon (Gold Medal), Coralie Balmy (World Champion), Mike Di Meglio (World Champion), Jean-Baptiste Grange (World Champion), Amaury Leveaux (World Champion), Loïc Peyron, Franck Ribéry, Jo-Wilfrid Tsonga
- writers : Muriel Barbery, Yasmina Reza, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
- cooks and sommeliers : Enrico Bernardo, Stephane Derenoncourt
- businessmen : Pierre Gadoneix, Maurice Levy (2008 Anti-Defamation League Award)
- scientists : Claude Lorius (Japanese Blue Planet Award), Brigitte Senut (Joliot-Curie Award 2008), Joseph Sifakis (Turing Prize), Jean Weissenbach (Gold Medal CNRS)

To related pages : headlines in the French media, historical heroes (#2), past glories (#3), schools named after famous people, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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