France often prides itself for its large array of singers using French lyrics, this method was supposed to preserve the French culture faced with an increasing influence from American music.

“La chanson” has been part of French culture since the Middle Ages. However, when speaking of the chanson today, it is more likely to refer to famous 20th century singers than to Guillaume de Machaut or early modern artists. 20th century singers are classified in the “nouvelle chanson” genre.

Here are five of them you may not know. Remember that this list is entirely subjective, not exhaustive and without any particular order and their songs live on.


Although her fame goes beyond France’s borders, Dalida is one of the most important French singers of the second half of the 20th-century. Born in 1933 in Egypt of Italian parents, Yolanda Gigliotti acquired the French citizenship upon her marriage in 1961. Dalida’s career in France began in a Parisian cabaret and later on a variety show. Her first hit which made her famous was the single Bambino released in 1956.

During her 30-years career, she recorded more than a thousand songs in several languages (including French, Italian and Arabic) and won awards from several European countries. She also had an (albeit less successful) acting career. Dalida died in Paris in 1987.

Jean Ferrat

Born as Jean Tenenbaum in 1930, son of an exiled Russian and a French woman, Jean Ferrat remains to this day one of the most influential chanson singer and composer. Influenced by his experience during the Second World War (his father died in a concentration camp), by his communist ideal and his love for French poetry, Jean Ferrat composed many provocative songs and was often the subject of censorship.

He spent his early musical career in a jazz orchestra but recognition came in the 1960s with songs such as La Montagne or Ma France. Ferrat is renowned for a high standard of quality lyrics in French. He passed away in 2010 in the loved Ardèche department, the topic of the song La Montagne.

Léo Férré

Léo Férré was born in 1916 in Monaco. He grew up listening to famous classical composers such as Beethoven or Maurice Ravel. He began his musical career by publishing critics in the 1930s. The Second World War during which he was mobilized marked a pause in his career until he met Edith Piaf his the later 1940s.

Férré waited for the 1950s to become successful, notably with the song Paris Canaille. His career lasted the next 40 years during which he produced hundreds of songs. Férré died in 1993 in Italy. He is remembered as one of the most productive singers and a spokesman for the anarchist ideology in the artistic sphere.

Mireille Mathieu

Mireille Mathieu was born in 1946 in the papal city of Avignon in the Vaucluse department. To this day, Mireille Mathieu is one of the most famous French singer, performing throughout the world. Her career began in local singing competitions until it kick-started when she appeared on television in a show in 1965.

She has sold over 130 million albums and performed in many countries such as the United-States, Mexico, Japan and Russia. Mireille Mathieu continues to be very productive to this day.

Charles Trenet

Charles Trenet was born in 1913 in Narbonne. He tried several arts (writing, painting) before starting his musical career writing movie scores. He created a duo called Charles et Johnny. But it was during his military service in the late 1930s that Charles Trenet became successful thanks to songs like Y’a d’la joie.  After the war, he moved to the Americas where he toured for several years.

He returned to France in 1954. His later career met high and lows, in the 60s Trenet preferred focusing on his writings and he retired in 1979 for personal reasons. Charles Trenet made his comeback in the 80s and 90s, still as successful as he was in his early years. He definitely retired in 1999 after 66 years on the scene and died in 2001, aged  87. With more than a thousand songs, Trenet remains one of the most famous and inspiring French singers.

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