Great Britain and France are separated geographically only by a narrow stretch of water. But in musical terms, there seems to be a language barrier preventing French music from being widely appreciated in Britain.
That’s not to say French artists aren’t doing well commercially in the UK, far from it, but French songs have never really troubled the UK charts, even though English songs by British musicians are a pillar south of the English Channel.
So what are some of the most memorable French-speaking hits in the UK? Regarding the methodology, we looked at songs that are mostly sung in French, regardless of where the artist is from. Songs with a French title, or a few French words in the chorus won’t do (sorry, Abba’s “Voulez-Vous” or Kylie Minogue’s “I don’t know, why”).
Here are our top 10 favorite French titles that set the UK charts on fire:
10. (Si Si) I Am a Rock Star – Bill Wyman (1981)
Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman will make his high school French teacher yell “Sacre bleu!” when they hear the pronunciation on this early ’80s track. Although he sings the first half of the song in English, the chorus kicks off with questionable rhymes including: “I’m a rock star / I had a residence / I live in the / In the south of France…
9. It’s high for me – Plastic Bertrand
Belgian group Plastic Bertrand cracked the top 10 in the fall of 1977 with this crazy song that translates (roughly) to “everything is fine for me”. Also watch the performance – bouncing on a trampoline on national television. Fun fact, the vocals for this song were not performed by Monsieur Bertrand, but by the song’s producer Lou Deprijck instead.
8. Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus – Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg
This breathless ode to lust was originally written by Gainsbourg for French actress Brigitte Bardot, but hit No. 1 on the UK charts in 1969 with English singer and actress Jane Birkin. Banned in a number of countries for lyrics such as “I come and go, between your loins” and “You are the wave, me the naked island”, “Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus” was the first foreign language song to reach the top of the UK charts.
7. Blondie – Denis
It’s another one of those half-English, half-French songs and it’s actually a cover of an early 60s hit that gave Blondie its breakthrough success in the UK and Europe. The song reached number two on the UK charts in early 1978.
6. Air – Hot Boy
There aren’t a lot of lyrics in this 1997 dance track by Versailles-based band Air…but the lyrics that there are are definitely in French. The song peaked at number 13 in the UK charts where it was much more highly regarded than in the band’s homeland – it only reached number 65 in France.
5. Let’s Dance – Stromae
This is another hit from a Belgian artist, which was huge across Europe, reaching #1 in 20 countries in 2009. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as popular in the UK, reaching number 25 on the singles chart and number 5 on the UK dance chart. Although the artist behind Stromae – an anagram of Maestro – Paul Van Haver has enjoyed more success in music and fashion in France, he has yet to achieve further success in the UK.
4. Celine Dion – You still love me
The song was a juggernaut for the Quebec singer, spending 12 weeks at number one in France and also reaching number seven on the UK singles chart – Dion’s biggest French-language hit in Britain to date. She re-recorded it in English under the title “If That’s What It Takes” to include on her 1996 album “Falling Into You” but it is the French version that remains by far the best known.
3. How to Say Goodbye – Jimmy Somerville feat. June Miles Kingston
When former Communards and Bronksi Beat singer Jimmy Somerville teamed up with singer June Miles Kingston in 1989 to record a house version of “Comment te dire adieu”, it had already been recorded many times by different artists dating back to more than two decades. Their infectious rendition of the poppy on the track impressed UK music fans by reaching No. 14 on the charts.
2. Voyage Voyage – Desireless
When ‘Voyage, Voyage’ was first released in 1986, it didn’t even break the top 50 of the UK charts – although it was a hit elsewhere in Europe. It took a remix a few years later for the track to catch on, and it peaked at No. 5 on the UK charts in 1988. Atmospheric, with a relentless eurodisco beat, “Voyage, Voyage” combined artful production values with Desireless herself — the stage name of French singer Claudie Fritsch-Mentrop — adding mystique to every performance.
1. Taxi Joe – Vanessa Paradis
The singer and song that set the hearts of a million teenagers racing, ‘Joe le Taxi’ peaked at number three in the UK charts in 1987 – long before Vanessa Paradis was an actor, singer, model or married to Johnny Depp. With its moody saxophone and sparse production values, “Joe le Taxi” tells the story of a real Portuguese taxi driver in Paris – Maria José Leão dos Santos – who fled his native country because of his sexuality. .
The track paints an image of a Joe as she cruises through the night listening to vintage rock, mambo, and rumba between two customer takes. No wonder music lovers were so captivated by the song – Paradise’s biggest hit in the UK and the latest biggest hit on the French-speaking charts.
Some honorable mentions for a French band Christine and the Queens whose debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’ is half English, half French, and was one of the UK’s best-selling albums of 2016.
Also on this list Edith Piaf which had a single UK chart hit in the 1960s, when “Milord” broke into the top 30.
And who could forget The singing nun and his 1963 hit “Dominique”? Belgian nun Sister Luc Gabriel reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart with the track, which also reached No. 7 in the UK.
Unfortunately, there is no happy outcome for Sister Luc Gabriel who received almost none of her royalties from the worldwide success of her song. She fell out with her religious order and the Catholic Church and died of an overdose with her longtime partner in 1985.