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 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….

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.

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 partner (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.

Carlos Ghosn (born 1954), Franco-Lebanese-Brazilian businessman, is the chairman of both Renault (France) and Nissan (Japan) since 2000, plus Mitsubishi (Japan) and AvtoVAZ (Russia) ! A more than brilliant career and amazing achievements, particularly in Japan where he is very popular. An 100% international manager,with a typically French academic background (Ecole Polytechnique + Ecole des Mines) for the best students. In prison in Japan since May 2019 for financial misbehavior as chairman, he escaped to Lebanon at the end of 2019: Sic Transit....

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.



Emmanuel Macron (born 1977, see picture), the young Minister of Economy of the Socialist government (since Aug.2014) now President of France (2017) is both very traditional (a perfect example of the elite aristocracy : ENA and Inspecteur des Finances), a former banker at Rothschild bank (managing partner at age 33) and extremely unconventional (he is not a Socialist party member, he never ran for any election, he married his high school professor of literature who is 24 years older etc). He was one of the very few members of the cabinet who are very popular on the whole political spectrum and particularly on the Right and in business circles. He is handsome, chiming, extremely courteous and speaks good English. On a regular basis, he used to make a statement on a taboo of the Left that horrifies the majority like "we must change the 35-hour work law", or "free enterprise is a value of the Left", or "we need young Frenchmen who hope to become billionaires", or "civil servants should be paid according to the quality of their work", etc. In brief, he wanted the Socialist party to adjust to its time. A hard task…. As the President, he had to face very difficult situations (hard train stikes in 2018 and 2019, the Yellow Vest upheaval in 2019, the coronavirus in 2020). Read about the 2017 presidential campaign.

Philippe Martinez (born 1961) is the head of the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), the most important worker’s union in France (but it represents only 2 to 3% of the workers, given the low level of unionization). Previously very close (and practically run by) the French Communist Party, this union is now more and more dominated by ultra-Left movements. Although weak in  terms of number of members, CGT is very powerful as it controls vital sectors such as transport (trains, metros, bus) and energy (electricity, petrol). CGT and its leader Martinez represent the worst of French

conservatism : no change is acceptable, preference for strikes and demonstrations rather than negotiation, systematic research of a « rapport de force » (position of strength) and no explicit refusal of violence.



Jean-Luc Melenchon is the vibrant leader of the France Insoumise (unsubdued France) movement (LFI), an Extreme Left party which did very well in the elections since its creation in 2016 with 20% at the Presidential election and 17 deputies elected to the National Assembly. Very radical, the movement is extremely popular among young and educated people and has links with all the other extreme Left parties in Europe (Die Linke in Germany, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, etc). Its positions are very strong (for example : exit Europe unless the other countries accept a total change in the treaties or threaten to default on the debt of the State). He is a sincere admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez (but today he speaks
much less of the latter...). A typical Trostkist, Melenchon is a brilliant orator and a very cultured person. Since 2017, he is the most dangerous opponent to President Macron. (credit)

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 haven 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 (it sold 2.5 miliion copies worldwide). 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. His last book Capital and Ideology (2019) is more focused on economic and fiscal policies and as huge as the previous one. He does bring something new in Economics : inequality is not a detail but an essential factor, not only for ethical reasons but for economic growth. This should help American readers to realize that the level of inequality in the US (higher than anywhere else in the Western world)  is a threat to the strength of the country.

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. He was appointed Minister of Environment by President Macron in 2017 with rank #2 in the government. More about environment. He resigned in 2018, unable to adjust to political life.

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.... Read a brief history of Extreme-Right movements in France.





Tariq Ramadan, born in 1962, Swiss of Egyptian origin, is a professor and a theologian, close to the Muslim Brotherhood. He is a brilliant speaker and debater and he is very active all over Europe with conferences, articles and TV interviews. For many, he is the classy flag of Islamic extremists in academic circles. Regarding the stoning of unfaithful wives, he does not say he is against it, he says he is for a moratorium .... His image was terminally destroyed in 2017 when he was taken to court by several women for alleged sexual harassment and rape.

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 and he was not elected in the primaries of the Right in 2016.

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.

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 in Paris (the home the best French mathematicians). A very talented speaker, he is very charming and modest. A vibrant (credit)
promoter of maths, he represents the best France can offer. Elected in the parliament in 2017, he is the science advisor of the president Macron.
     Men-women of the Year

Other names suggested by visitors include : Pierre Boulez, Jean-Marie Le Clezio, Bruno Lemaire, 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 ")








They've .disappeared from the radar screen......(read about them) : Olivier Besancenot, Cope, Rachida Dati, François Hollande, Bernard Kouchner, Arlette Laguiller, Jean Marie Messier, Zinedine Zidane.






Personalities of the recent past (read about them)

Abbé Pierre, Simone de Beauvoir, Coco Chanel, Coluche, Johnny Hallyday, Simone Veil

...and historical figures....

Jules Ferry, Jean Jaurès, Jean Moulin

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


"Men-women of the Year" is one of the favourite headlines in the press. Of course, it illustrates only "fame" by media standards and offers a large place to movie stars, football players and politicians compared to writers, businessmen or scientists but, at least,it gives a good list of people that everybody knows in France and, for this reason, it can be useful for foreigners who wish to better understand the French.

In 2017, the list was : 1:Omar Sy (actor), 2:Emmanuel Macro the prsident), 3:Teddy Riner (judo olympic champion), 4:Zinedine Zidane (football player now coach), 5:Jean-Jacques Goldman (singer and composer), 6:Sophie Marceau (actress), 7: Patrick Pelloux (physician), 8:Tony Parker (basketball player), 9:Marion Cotillard (actress), 10: Gérard Depardieu (actor), 11: Elise Lucet (journalist), 12:Thomas Pesquet (astronaut), 13: Mathieu Ricard (buddist monk), 14:Yannick Noah (former tennis player), 15:Nicolas Hulot (ecologist, now a minister in the government), 16: Michel Cymes (physician and journalist), 17:Stephan Bern (journalist), 18:Jean-Luc Melenchon (Extreme-Left politician), 19:Edouard Philippe (Prime Minister), 20: Jean Pierre Pernaut (journalist) etc. (Source : Le Parisien, Dec.13, 2017).


In 2008, 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 Canet, 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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