55 Famous French songs that defined pop culture

55 Famous French songs that defined pop culture

A list of famous French songs is always going to cause plenty of debate. How do you decide? Songs that are popular and have stood the test of time to transcend their genre.

We’ve had plenty of discussions chez nous as to how put together classic and recent hits while including a good mix artists. Certain French artists dominated the charts for decades, while others were one-hit-wonders that are still crowd-pleasers today.

Chanson – Song

French – English translation

To give the list some coherence, while not ranking the songs in order by what we consider “the best” (because that would really incur the debate-hounds), I’ve ranked the songs by release date.

There are no English songs by French artists such as Daft Punk or David Guetta on the list since the focus here is on famous French songs, not songs by French artists. I’ve also included hit French songs sung by artists of other nationalities. So if you are ready, here we go!

Note: if you have a Spotify account, log on to your account in a different tab on your internet browser, to hear the full song below.

Table of Contents

1. Edith Piaf – La vie en rose

Released in: 1945

We couldn’t start this list without the indomitable Edith Piaf. One of the most famous french songs of all time, La vie en rose still defines France. Written in 1945, it was especially meaningful to the generation that survived the atrocities of World War II.

And its lyrics still speak to the soul. Everyone from Lady Gaga to Madonna to Dean Martin have covered this song about finding true love.

2. Jacques Brel – Ne me quitte pas

Released in: 1959

Belgium singer Jacques Brel sang this classic French hit that has been rerecorded and sung the world over. The French version has been covered by various artists including, Sting, Celine Dion and Wyclef Jean.

The English version “If you go away” has been rerecorded by Shirley Bassey, Barbara Streisand, Cyndi Lauper and Neil Diamond. Quite the compliment, you will agree!

3. Édith Piaf – Non, je ne regrette rien

Released in: 1960

Je ne regrette rien, meaning “I don’t regret anything”, is a song in the style of My Way by Frank Sinatra

Edith Piaf was only 44 when she sang this song, but she knew she was close to death. After several years of alcohol abuse, the loss of her daughter and husband, she would die merely 3 years later at 47.

4. Jacques Brel – Amsterdam

Released in: 1964

Another classic by Jacques Brel, this song about sailors at the port of Amsterdam has also been rerecorded by David Bowie.

5. Charles Aznavour – La Bohème

Released in: 1965

A signature tune by famous french artist Charles Aznavour that tells the story of his days as a young starving artist in Montmartre.

6. France Gall – Sacré Charlemagne

Released in: 1965

King Charlemagne may have been a serious fellow and belong to the history books, but Sacré Charlemagne is a campy french tune that will make anyone smile. It was meant to be a kids’ song that blames “bloody Charlemagne” for having invented the French school system.

The effervescent Frances Gall was only 16 when she sang this hit written by her father, and it propelled her to enormous success for decades.

☞ READ MORE: Top French songs for kids

7. Claude François – Comme D’Habitude

Released in: 1967

If you listen to Comme d’habitude, you will recognize immediately the melody of Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Claude François sang the French version of this classic hit, two years before Frank Sinatra’s hit. Paul Anka wrote the English version for Frank Sinatra, after hearing it on the radio.

The two songs don’t have the same meaning however, the English version is about looking back on a life well-lived, while the French version is about the routine of life and falling out of love. Both versions have had many remakes, including a 2016 version by French pop singer M. Pokora.

8. Serge Gainsbourg et Jane Birkin – Je t’aime moi non plus

Released in: 1969

A play on words “I love you, me neither”, Serge Gainsbourg was famous for his hidden jokes and provocative lyrics. He got his partner at the time to sing this song with him, making it an instant hit.

Jane Birkin was the “it girl” of her generation with that mysterious French je ne sais quoi, except for the minor fact that she is actually British. Yes, the Hermes Birkin bag is named after her.

☞ READ MORE: The Risqué French Nursery Rhyme

9. Joe Dessin – Les Champs Elysées

Released in: 1969

Another campy karaoke tune, this time from Joe Dessin. You will find yourself humming this catchy refrain as you go shopping on Paris’s Champs Elysées.

10. Claude François – Chanson populaire

Released in: 1973

Claude François had many hits, among them Chanson Populaire, meaning “Popular song”. It was a massive hit for him in 1973, living up to its name.

11. Dalida with Alain Delon – Paroles

Released in: 1973

When Alain Delon, the actor heartthrob of his day, teamed up with beautiful Dalida to sing Paroles, everyone knew it was going to be something special.

The French version of the Italian hit about a woman complaining about her lover’s lies became an instant classic.

12. Nino Ferrer – Le sud

Released in: 1974

Le Sud is a song dedicated to the joys of endless summers in the south of France and was Nino Ferrer’s biggest hit.

13. Gerard Lenorman – La ballade des gens heureux

Released in: 1975

“The song of happy people” will certainly put a smile on your face. If you are at karaoke with French people and this song doesn’t come on, there is something very wrong.

☞ READ MORE: French Christmas songs to put you in the festive spirit

14. Claude François – Cette année là

Released in: 1976

The 1963 hit “Oh what a night” by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons gets a French remake here by Claude François.

15. Claude François – Alexandrie Alexandra

Released in: 1977

This peppy song of the disco era hides the sad fact that it was released on the day of Claude François’ funeral, after his accidental death. Alexandrie song is about the city of Alexandria on the banks of the River Nile in Egypt.

It is not unlike the French nursery rhyme “Allez crocodiles” which also is about the Nile, although that features crocodiles and elephants fighting, while this song is about girls and finding love.

16. France Gall – Résiste

Released in: 1981

France Gall has long shed her teen pop idol status and confirms it with this song about resisting fascism. A song about improving the world around us that still resonates today.

17. Michel Sardou – Les lacs du Connemara

Released in: 1981

At the height of the Irish Conflict, Michel Sardou wrote this moving ballad about the wars between Catholics and Protestants. Connemara is a region in Ireland and is emblematic of the country’s gaelic heritage.

The song became one of Michel Sardou’s biggest hits, but interestingly, he had never actually visited the area until after the song came out.

18. Indochine – L’aventurier

Released in: 1982

One of the standard-bearers for French rock, Indochine pays tribute in this song to the book series Bob Morane.

Naming several popular characters, the song sings the praises of this fictional character who is an RAF fighter during WWII, with a black belt in karate and an amazing ability to get out of sticky situations. The French version of James Bond, if you will.

19. Telephone – Cendrillon

Released in: 1982

The band Telephone sings this melancholic song about Cendrillon (“Cinderella” in English). The song starts with her as a young and beautiful dreamer in her 30s, before slowly losing her dreams as she hits her 30s. Her husband leaves, she is managing the children by herself, and then by her 40s is a drug addict and prostitute who tries to kill herself.

Not quite the fairytale imagined by a “happy ever after”.

20. Jean-Jacques Goldman – Au bout de mes rêves

Released in: 1982

Pop-rock musician Jean-Jacques Goldman is regularly voted one of “France’s favorite personalities“. Au bout de mes rêves, meaning “at the end of my dreams” was one of the biggest hits on his debut album.

21. Renaud – Dès que le vent soufflera

Released in: 1983

The legendary Renaud has had so many hits it is almost impossible to narrow it down. In Dès que le vent soufflera (meaning “when the wind blows”) with his signature cracked voice, Renaud sings about the sailor’s love of the sea and open air.

22. Cookie Dingler – Femme Librée

Released in: 1984

Cookie Dingler honors the liberated woman in this classic karaoke hit that remains a favorite today. The ultimate sing-along, even if you don’t know all the lyrics.

23. Marc Lavoine – Elle a les yeux revolver

Released in: 1985

“She has the eyes of a revolver” probably says it all about Marc Levoine’s song about the femme fatale.

24. Françoise Hardy – Tous les garçons et les filles

Released in: 1987

Searching for love is 19-year-old Françoise Hardy in Tous les garçons et les filles. Comparing herself to her peers, she laments of “all the boys and girls” who have found love when she hasn’t.

25. Vanessa Paradis – Joe la Taxi

Released in: 1988

You have probably already heard Joe la taxi, the french-language song was an international hit for 14-year-old Vanessa Paradis. The song about Joe, the pseudonym of Maria José Leão dos Santos, who flees the Portuguese authoritarian regime due to her sexuality and ends up working as a taxi driver in France.

The song was a massive hit in the U.K. Germany, Norway, and beyond, even though most foreigners likely didn’t understand the lyrics and why a 14-year-old was singing it!

26. Patrick Bruel – J’te le dit quand même

Released in: 1989

Actor and musician Patrick Bruel is a bit of a cross of Sting and Harrison Ford. As in very talented. This soft ballad is one of his biggest hits.

27. Debut de soirée – Nuit de folie

Released in: 1989

The disco era is in full swing with this one. The band’s name is Debut de soirée which means “start of the evening.”

So it makes sense that their biggest hit was a song about the nightlife in the city, and partying it up on a nuit de folie (night of craziness).

28. Patrick Bruel – Casser la voix

Released in: 1989

Patrick Bruel is also ready to casser la voix (meaning “break his voice”) with this powerful rock ballad.

29. Iam – Je danse le mia

Released in: 1994

French hip hop band IAM wrote this song that became the anthem for Marseillais of their generation. The band from Marseille song was released in the months following the local football (soccer) team Olympique de Marseille’s Champions League victory, setting the stage for a very long party.

For those wondering, mia is a play of words on their name IAM.

30. Céline Dion – Pour que tu m’aimes encore

Released in: 1995

Céline Dion doesn’t put out as many French songs today as she did back in the day, but “Pour que tu m’aimes encore” has stood the test of time. A classic love ballad meaning “for that you love me again”, this song was released 2 years before the titanic “My heart will go”.

31. Johnny Halladay – Allumer le feu

Released in: 1998

The legendary “American” rocker Johnny Halladay set the charts on fire with one of his biggest hits in a career full of massive hits with Allumer le feu (“light the fire”).

32. Noir Désir – Le vent nous portera

Released in: 2001

One of the best French rock bands of their day, Noir Désir originates from Bordeaux. In Le vent nous portera, meaning “the wind will carry us” is a very moving song about two characters that are inseparable (that the wind will carry off together).

33. Renaud & Axelle Red- Manhattan – Kaboul

Released in: 2002

Renaud teamed up with Belgian singer Axelle Red to write this heartfelt song written after the events of 9/11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan.

Renaud takes on the role of a despondent Manhattanite, while Axelle Red sings the part of a lost Afghan girl wondering what has happened to the world.

34. Carla Bruni – Quelqu’un m’a dit

Released in: 2002

Model and singer Carla Bruni released this single years before she would become First Lady of France. The wife of French ex-President Nicholas Sarkozy croons softly about lost love in this song that spent over 34 weeks in the top 10.

35. Indochine – J’ai demandé à la lune

Released in: 2002

After a 10 year hiatus, Indochine released this single that immediately reconnected the critical press, as well as gaining wide recognition with its audience. A hit by any measure.

36. Sinsémilia – Tout le bonheur du monde

Released in: 2004

The reggae group Sinsémilia has not had as many mega-famous songs as some of the other artists on this list, but Tout le bonheur du monde (“All the happiness in the world”) is one that remains a popular favorite.

37. Amel Bent – Ma philosophie

Released in: 2004

Amel Bent raises her fist and aims for the moon in this personal anthem “My philosophy”.

38. Benebar – Le dîner

Released in: 2005

If you have been to a typical dinner in France, you know that you are going to be there for a long time. Not as long as French Christmas dinner, but still very long.

Benebar makes fun of this tradition in his song where he recounts once excuse after another to not go, including at one point suggesting they just order pizzas.

39. Christophe Maé – Belle Demoiselle

Released in: 2007

Christophe Maé graduated high school with a patisserie degree, but quickly moved on the musical theatre and realizing his dreams as a singer. His first album sold over 1.5 million copies, featuring Belle Demoiselle and as well as many other hits.

40. BB Brun – Dis-moi

Released in: 2007

Part of the new French rock scene, the band BB Brun took their name from Serge Gainsbourg’s song “Initials BB”.

41. Julien Doré & Coeur de Pirate – Pour un infidèle

Released in: 2008

Coeur de Pirate and Julien Doré play the roles of a sparring couple in Pour un infidèle (“For a cheater”). The back and forth with lyrics of sweet nothings being whispered take a jarring turn when “other girls enter the dance”.

Released in: 2008

☞ READ MORE: 15 French Musicians you need to add to your playlist

42. Marc Antoine – Tant Besoin De Toi

Released in: 2008

Canadian R&B artist Marc Antoine earnestly professes his love in his breakthrough single Tant Besoin De Toi meaning “so much need for you”.

43. Stromae – Alors on danse

Released in: 2009

“And so we dance” was an international breakout hit for Belgian musician Stromae, reaching the top of charts in the U.S., U.K. and beyond.

The song about the “merde” of life talks about the drudgery of work, kids, divorce, before moving onto heavier topics like famine and poverty. And so all we can do is dance, as the songwriter says.

44. Gaetan Roussel – Help myself

Released in: 2009

This may not sound like a French song, but singer-songwriter Gaetan Roussel only writes the refrain in English. The lead singer of Louise Attaque released this entertaining single as part of his first solo album.

45. Vanessa Paradis – Il y a

Released in: 2009

Written by Gaeten Roussel, Vanessa Paradis shows that she has still got it with this new single that was released with her greatest hits album.

46. Guillaume Grand – Toi et moi

Released in: 2010

Coming from the lovely region of Dordogne, is French singer Guillaume Grand with his song Toi et moi (meaning “you and me”). A soft and catchy tune about falling in love (with a decent amount of alcohol).

47. Mylene Farmer – Oui mais non

Released in: 2010

Mylene Farmer’s usual style is soft melodies, which is why this dance hit caught everyone by surprise.

48. Gaetan Roussel – Dis moi que tu m’aime

Released in: 2010

Gaetan Roussel’s followup single Dis-moi que tu m’aime, meaning “tell me you love me” has a different vibe than his hit “Help myself”, but is just as easy to listen to.

49. Zaz – Je veux

Released in: 2010

With her debut single, Zaz came out with this jazzy folk song about the material things in life. In Je Veux (“I want”), she exclaims how it is not the Ritz or Chanel that she needs but love, joy, and happiness. May we all be so lucky.

50. Mika – Elle me dit

Released in: 2011

Lebanese-born British singer Mika was inspired to release this hit in his native French, 4 years after his breakthrough in English “Grace Kelly”.

Elle me dit (“she told me”) was so successful he later released a version in English called “Emily”.

51. Keen’V (feat SAP) – J’aimerais trop

Released in: 2012

French singer teamed up with SAP to put out this catchy dance hit, that you will simply not be able to get out of your head.

52. Stromae – Papaoutai

Released in: 2013

The followup to Stromae’s megahit Alors on danse, was Papaoutai which was released 2 years later. The title is French slang for Papa où es-tu?, meaning “Papa where are you?”. The song touches on the loss of his own father during the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a child, before he moved to Belgium.

53. Maitre Gims – Bella

Released in: 2013

With over 430million views on Youtube, Gandhi Bilel Djun, better known as Maitre Gims is one of the top artists and rappers in the world. Working with artists such as Sia, Little Wayne, Sting, Gims doesn’t hesitate to mix his sound with latin, hip hop

54. Coeur de Pirate – Mistral Gagnant

Released in: 2014

It’s hard to pick between Renaud’s original Mistral Gagnant, and the reprise performed by Coeur de Pirate 20 years later. The song about the loss of time mourns the past by lamenting the disappearance of a type of candy called Mistral Gagnant from Renaud’s youth.

The song was intended for his daughter Lolita, so it is fitting that the soft croons of Coeur the Pirate are there to pick up the relay.

55. Stromae – Formidable

Released in: 2013

The formidable Stromae rounds off this list with Formidable, once again proving his range. A good way to end this list, no?

A bientôt!

¹ Featured Image: Matthew Henry

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55 Famous French songs that defined pop culture

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