France: 100 censored songs

20 May 2015


Censorship of one form or the other has been a feature of the French music scene. Surprisingly, no books in French have ever been published on this question. Until, that is, a young French radio producer and a historian and law specialist joined forces to bring out the book ‘100 Chansons censurées’ – about 100 censored songs

Over the past couple centuries, French authorities and self-proclaimed moralistic pressure groups have enjoyed an ambiguous, often turbulent relationship with France’s musical community. Between the time the Paris regime prosecuted Pierre-Jean de Béranger for the irreverent lyrics in his 1821 composition Le Bon Dieu, and the period in 2010 when hardcore actress Clara Morgane saw a plethora of websites block her erotic music video clip Le Diable au Corps, censorship of one form or the other has been a feature of the music scene.

Until 1981, it was conducted by the Comité d’écoute de la Radiodiffusion française, a State censorship body housed first at Radio-France and then at the Ministry of Information. However, its disappearance has not seen the end of various forms of censorship: pressure groups, media self-censorship and populist lobbies have been seen to complement ongoing political actions to deprive actors of the music industry from reaching their audiences.

Surprisingly, no books in French have ever been published on this question. Until, that is, young French radio producer Aurélie Sfez and historian and law specialist Emmanuel Pierrat joined forces to bring out ‘100 Chansons censurées’ in November 2014.

This is a densely-researched anthology of 100 mainly – but not exclusively – French songs which have faced censorship of varying forms, approaches and sizes.

Journalist Daniel Brown met the book’s instigator, radio producer Aurélie Sfez to gauge her exploration of a world of radio censorship boards, haughty politicians, self-styled guardians of social mores and quirky bureaucrats bent on “protecting society”.

Sfez also shares with us her controversial nostalgia for a censorship board because, she claims, “at least you knew your enemies, they could be localised, whereas, nowadays, they are sprouting up everywhere”.


Interview • By Daniel Brown

“I was foraging in unexplored territories.” Aurélie Sfez smiles. She has nothing of a researcher willing to spend entire months poring over documents, dusty records and music files to bring to light France’s unpredictable, see-saw marriage to its music community. A cherubic, lighthearted figure, she exudes an energy and confidence that compensates her lack of experience in academic research on such a challenging topic. It is perhaps this freshness and irreverency that makes her 200-page study such an enjoyable breeze into an industry which is deluged by book publications every year.

Sfez is the first to be puzzled by the fact that ‘100 Chansons censurées’ is groundbreaking, all the more so because censorship has touched so many of the country’s most popular artists. Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, NTM, La Rumeur, Boris Vian, Maxime le Forestier, Pierre Perret, Johnny Halliday, Patricia Kaas, Renaud and The Wampas are just some of the household names from French popular music to have experienced (for reasons which go from the coldly political to the mind-bogglingly irrational) the ire of the censor in the past decades.

“The book was very complicated because there was no yardstick to measure it against, no other French work which looks at this phenomenon. On the other hand, we had a fresh approach, no comparisons to hamper us.”

The authors describe with humour and, at times, passion the meandering rationale behind these decisions to protect society from the lyrical ruminations of France’s music artists. To provide the book with further texture and depth, Sfez and Pierrat chose a large clutch of international censorship cases ranging from David Bowie’s Next Day and Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing to the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Rezsö Seress with his Szomoru Vasarnap (Gloomy Sunday).


Amplifying controversial songs
“We didn’t set out to write a comparative study but it’s allowed us to see that in France there is a deeply-anchored irreverent spirit, and it’s something we are proud of. It’s what we call esprit cocardier (Ed. a light form of jingoism),” she explains matter-of-factedly.

“We’ve always liked to play around with our censors, our taboos, we titillate our religious precepts. It goes back to our French revolution and La Marseillaise which was censored a dozen times. Back then, its composer had several verses chopped off. We wanted to include this song. We feel it represents the germination of modern censorship, but ironically the publisher cut it out for reasons, he says, of space. Still, I included Gainsbourg’s version,  Aux armes et caetera, of what’s become our national anthem. Just goes to prove some songs can resurface and be banned again for different reasons. So the oldest example of censorship you find in our book is Pierre-Jean de Béranger’s song Le Bon Dieu which came out almost 200 years ago.”

Le Bon Dieu is a humorous portrayal of a questioning and insecure God who asks Him/Herself if the Earth and its inhabitants were really such a successful invention. De Béranger was one of the country’s most popular songwriters, shunning fame and fortune to sing his militant songs. His trials for sedition and blasphemy only boosted his notoriety, one of the first examples of the amplifying effect censorship and repression often have on songs and their creators. In the book, it is one of the final cases studied by Sfez and Pierrat.

“We didn’t want to organise the structure in a straightforward chronology of the 100 songs, it would have been boring, chiant,” explains Sfez in her direct, unacademic way. “In a chronology, there would be no surprises, just like putting them in alphabetical order. Much better to organise them thematically because then you move from Madonna to a classical composition, from a song about a First World War deserter to the tough suburban vision of a modern rapper. You play on contrast, mixing styles and eras.”


Exhaustive research
As so often, the book project was born of an accident. “I was asked to prepare a one-hour filler for the national radio station where I work, France Inter. It was to be used in case our 2011 Victoires de la Musique (ed. the French equivalent of the Grammy Awards) finished earlier. I talked to the director of Radio France’s music library, Marc Maret, and he showed me a partial list the censorship board had drawn of songs they had banned in their 20 years of existence. The pages were simple, often handwritten, with the details of the composer and singer and columns with a word like “blasphemous”, “obsene words”, “scatological” or “degrading” next to each song. So I suggested we programme an hour of forbidden songs and it was a blast. The Victoires is this politically correct, rigid evening of official music awards and backslapping. After it was over, we played a mix of old punk songs, songs that mocked our social habits, tunes with sexual innuendos, or with lyrics touching on taboo subjects like drugs. It was liberating.”

“Shortly after, I came across a book Emmanuel Pierrat wrote called 100 Images qui ont fait scandale (Hoëbeke 2011, 2013) and a light bulb went off: ‘I can do the same for forbidden music.’ Emmanuel immediately agreed, we shook on it and that was the beginning of a pretty crazy adventure.”

Sfez and Pierrat spent much of the following 18 months researching in the Radio-France music library (this discotheque has 1.5 million records and audio files) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and listened to “kilometres-worth of reel-to-reel music tapes.” Such research was a first for Sfez but is familiar territory for Pierrat. The historian/lawyer/politician/novelist has written dozens of books, novels, essays and judicial works in his 23-year career. They touch on an impressive array of topics, from sexuality to questions of copyright and family law. The two writers split the task, choosing 100 songs each before narrowing the list to 100 in all.

“It seemed like an endless tunnel, cross-checking, contacting the composers to better understand what was behind each song. If they weren’t alive, we went for their agents or family members for background information.”


Portrait of a French censor
The authors have articulated six sections in their work: sexuality/eroticism, war/peace, politically incorrect, politics, drugs and religions, with sexuality representing the largest. As the duo researched the bans they began to understand the mechanisms of the censorship committee created after World War II, called comité d’écoute (“listening committee”). Until 1964, this obscure branch of the civil service worked in the bowels of the state’s Radiodiffusion française (RDF) and then the Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), where it pored over the latest releases deciding which songs could be broadcast and which were banned. It also asked the radio’s complaints department to hand over listeners comments, protests and denunciations.

In 1964, it moved to the Ministry of Information until François Mitterrand disbanded the committee in 1981.

“Mitterrand decided to bury this idea of censorship, insisting the State is not about control. Till today, there’s still a question of regulation and monitoring, a task which is done by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, CSA. But the Socialist government was clearly hostile to the idea of direct intervention based on moral values. On the contrary, they freed the airwaves, there was a flood of new independent radio stations called radios libres, yuppee! New sounds just flooded the FM wavebands.”

Before the arrival of the country’s first Socialist Party government, the eagle ears of  the comité d’écoute combed through every music release. “This was state censorship at its most obvious,” explains Sfez and she begins to paint a picture of the censor as a bureaucrat who seemed wildly unpredictable. “He or she was cyclothymic, prone to making decisions which seemed to reflect swings from euphoria to depression.”

She elaborates: “The French censors were really quite perverse. They would pinpoint a word, lyric or intention which they deemed shocking, in a song the listener had yet to hear! And they were so unpredictable: they had no trouble with Pierre Perret’s song Zizi (a childish name for penis) and yet banned Colonie de Vacances because Perret humourously sings about a child peeing into a sink… Perret was banned from TV for six months as a result of the latter.”

Sfez pursues: “The censors are difficult to read. There was the case of Juliette Gréco and her song Valse des Si which, unfortunately, we didn’t find room for in our book. The censors put this under the column called “Aesthetic value”. That’s where the tone of the song was judged: if it were too suggestive, had screams (for example, Antonin Artaud’s Pour en Finir Avec le Jugement de Dieu) or an aggressive rhythm, it was banned. Gréco’s song had just two words in it: “Et si” (“and if”). But the “si” was drawn out, accompanied by heavy breathing.” Sfez artfully mimics the “si-i-i-i” and laughs. “There was a perfume of desire and fantasy that coursed through the song. Well, that went out, even if there was no law forbidding breathing of any nature.”

The radio producer continues to be intrigued by the composition of the censorship bureau and hopes to make a film documentary on it. “The censors even recruited the well-known French singer Cora Vaucaire, who just died four years ago. Vaucaire was brought in as a consultant and she  always maintained it was a way of getting the bureaucrats to accept songs they would have refused. She wanted to be a counter-balance for the zealots, people like the Minister for Information at the time, Alain Perfitte. Hmm, I wonder.”

At times, Sfez is brutal in her judgment: “These censors were cowards and had tepid judgment. They were always ready to pander to authority and were scared of any form of insurrection that a song might start off. And this could have devastating consequences for some composers and singers.” Sfez points to Le Déserteur by Boris Vian, a powerful hymn against war which the French composer wrote in 1954. This was the year Pierre Mendès-France sent 100,000 men to combat the Algerian independence movement. One of France’s most popular singers of the time, Marcel Mouloudji, agreed to sing an asepticised version in Paris, but both versions were immediately banned from all airwaves and Mouloudji’s career suffered a devastating setback. Only Europe 1 broadcast the Mouloudji version before a blanket ban was imposed in 1958 for four years.


Publishers censor too
This included a ban for publication. The authors managed to get their hands on a laconic letter to Vian by publisher Paul Beuscher who asked the poet to “send another version since (he) cannot not publish the text in its integrity.”

“I would like you to modify certain passages,” Beuscher pursues, “which appear excessive.”

The publishing ban was finally lifted in 1962, eight years after it was written. A few years later, Peter, Paul & Mary picked it up and translated it into The Pacifist. But concerns in France over its content did not end in the Sixties. In an ironic afternote, a school director in Montluçon was slapped with a lifetime ban from her profession in 1999 after having two of her ten-year-old pupils sing Le Déserteur at a ceremony commemorating Germany’s 1945 capitulation.

Such excessive treatment was not confined to France alone, of course. There is also the surrealistic story of Szomoru Vasarnap, or Gloomy Sunday in the English jazz version. This composition by Hungarian Rezsö Seress was written in 1932 and provoked the suicide of several people because of its melancholic streak. The Hungarian government imposed a blanket ban on it appearing in any form, but it was too late. It was played several times in New York and once again was linked to a number of suicides.

“Rumour has it that this tune is responsible for the death of over 200 people,” write Sfez/Pierrat. Ironically, Seress’s fiancée killed herself after World War Two leaving behind a postcard with two words: “Gloomy Sunday”. In 1968, Seress strangled himself with an electric wire… on a Sunday.


Privatised censorship
The closure of the comité d’écoute by the Mitterrand government 34 years ago did not mark the end of music censorship in France, however. It just took new forms. In some ways, Sfez claims, this has become more pernicious. “The censors of today are the libertarians of yesterday,” she says provocatively.

“These little groups of militants, anti-racists, feminists, the LGBT, seem to have leagued up with the French Christian conservatives, and you just can’t say anything anymore.” Sfez lists the examples from her book: Sale Pute (dirty whore) by Orelsan, College Boy by Indochine, Funky Family with Loin du compte. “But they’re hitting at all forms of art. We’ve also seen these groups go after sculptures, like the right-wing fundamentalists who attacked the green Tree people called a butt plug by Paul McCarthy (ed. vandalised when erected in Place Vendôme, Paris ), or theatre plays like “Exhibit B”, brought to justice by anti-racists. These attacks reflect what I would call privatised censorship. It’s this frightening populist backlash that has been sweeping over us this past year and it seems to be going up and up.”

Nevertheless, Sfez does not hide her own strong criticism of sexist songs or behaviour. “I’m obviously hostile to the homophobia and sexism some rap artists are guilty,” she tells me. “These are judicial questions and must be prosecuted under French law. Personally, as a writer and a woman, I cannot excuse the rappers who brand women “bitches” and denigrate them.”

Her focus on Orelsan is illustrative of this. Sale Pute was denounced both by Junior Minister for Solidarity Valérie Létard and the association Ni putes ni soumises (“Neither whorey nor submissive”). The latter took the singer to court but lost the case in 2012 as the prosecutor said it was part of Orelsan’s “artistic freedom of speech”. However, a year later the rapper was condemned to pay a fine of €1,000 euro by a Paris court for singing it during a concert at the Bataclan in 2009.

“What’s most disgusting,” Sfez explains to me, “is that Orelsan didn’t put it on his 2007 album on purpose, saying he was being censored. It was a publicity stunt, in fact. Worst of all, it worked and became a hit.”

Orelsan later drew the ire of the Socialist Party minister for Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, partly for the song Saint-Valentin where he sings: “Shut your gob or you’ll get a marie-trintignant”  (ed. lead singer for the French cult group Noir Désir, Bertrand Cantat was convicted for killing Marie Trintignant in 2003 with his fists, see

In the book, Sfez concludes, tongue-in-cheek: “When it comes down to it, Orelsan deserves a good spanking for all this.” But when we talked over the phone she was serious. “This is a really unhealthy tendency, and we take position in our book and in my radio programmes.”

“I also think it was a good thing the French group Death in June were prevented from touring in 2013. Their positions on the Holocaust are indefensible and there is no repentance despite repeated denunciations and court condemnations.”

“This band,” writes Sfez, “is lead by Douglas Pearce, “a seeming admirer of the Nazi aesthetics and all the unhealthy mythology that gravitates around Adolf Hitler’s ideology.”

On stage Pearce performs in camouflage gear and sings about war criminals like Klaus Barbie, stating the number of people he killed or tortured “are of no importance”.

The anti-fascist collective La Horde alerted authorities about his band’s projected tour of France in 2013 and were able to persuade the concert hall directors to deprogramme the concerts. “I was relieved,” says Sfez. “It’s obvious that I am not against all censorship.”

Sfez believes taboos are evolving with society. “We’re witnessing a race between censorship and freedom-of-expression, especially on the internet. There is a need to regulate, an intelligent space that has yet to be found. Internet has become a warzone where normal people feel free to write horrific comments. It’s become a catharsis for some of our worse instincts, and music has not escaped this unhealthy explosion.”

Sfez’s book also points to the challenges of self-censorship on the airwaves. Renaud’s controversial 1985 hit Miss Maggie was blanketted out in 2013 after Margaret Thatcher’s death in April of that year. A laconic internal note warned the programmers of the popular radio station France Bleu that the French singer’s sardonic critique of the Iron Lady had been placed in level 3 “to avoid broadcast in the coming days.

“So, a level exists,” says the co-author of 100 Chansons. “It’s the first we’ve heard of it, and we now wonder just how many risk levels there are.” The outcry soon spread and the Sud union wrote a leaflet which concluded: “This ban is the personal initiative of someone who sniffed too much pudding in the 1980s…”

Sfez pauses. “Sometimes, there is a degree of intelligent tact in self-censorship, however. As a programmer myself, I was torn by the  Bertrant Cantat affair. I loved his music but out of respect for Trintignant’s family, I couldn’t programme his music anymore. It’s not worth hurting people for a pretty song.”

Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse.

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