Who WAS who in France... (#3) 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. But for many of them, it does not last... On this page, people who were famous between 1995 and 2010 and who no longer make cover pages !
 Living personalities    

Olivier Besancenot (born 1974) is the spokesman of Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (L.C.R.) now N.A.P. (New Anti-capitalism Party), one of the two main Trotskyist organisations with L.O. (see Laguiller). A postman in Neuilly (the wealthiest suburb of Paris), he enjoys an excellent image in the medias (a wolf in sheep's clothing) and won more than 4 % of the vote in the 2007 presidential election with the motto : "Our lives are worth more than their profits". Read about some of his voters, the altermondialistes.

Jean-François Copé (born 1964) is one of the handful of people who can say that their objective in life is to become president of France in 2017 without people cracking up when they hear it. A typical example of the French elite, he graduated from ENA (of course), he has been elected mayor of Meaux, deputy and appointed member of the government as the Minister of Budget. He was the leader of the Majority at the Chamber, then the head of the Right Wing party. He was seriously hit by a scandal about the financing of the 2012 presidential campaign and his political future is now at stake. He is very intelligent, very charming, rather arrogant and overly ambitious.

Rachida Dati (born 1966), the daughter of an Algerian worker, made her way up to the level of Minister of Justice, the fourth most prestigious position in the government of Sarkozy. She is a hard worker and a brilliant example of the new France where the most

talented children of immigrants from North and West Africa can become members of the government (like her two women colleagues Rama Yade and Fadela Amara of Senegalese and Algerian origin). More about women in political life.  (credit)



Arlette Laguiller (born 1940) was the spokeswoman of Lutte Ouvrière (L.O.), one of the two major Trotskyist organizations in France (see Besancenot) ; since 1974, she has been candidate in every presidential election in France and her scores are far from negligible (around 5%). Although L.O. has many aspects of a sect and would maybe behave like the Red Khmers if ever in power, she is popular and many people, who would not consider voting for her, think that among politicians, she is the only one sincere ; read about the strange phenomenon of Trotskyism in France.

Jean Marie Messier (born 1954) illustrates the worst aspects of the French society. A graduate of the most prestigious Grandes Ecoles (X & ENA), he spent a few years as a junior member of a Cabinet then as "associé" in a leading investment bank (Lazard) and at age 40, without haver ever been anything else than the boss, he was appointed CEO of Compagnie Générale des Eaux (the world leader of the water industry). Arrogant and megalomaniac, it took him only five years to take it almost to bankrupcy and Vivendi (the new name) only escaped it after selling (at a loss) almost all the companies he had taken over, including Universal Studios and his $17m apartment on Central Park. A French Enron (without fraud). Today, JMM still fights over his golden parachute and considers that nobody really undestood his superior intelligence.

Bernard Kouchner  (born 1939) is a very popular figure in France ; one of the founders of Medecins Sans Frontières (doctors without borders, the " French Doctors ") he has been successful in his successive roles as a leader of the students in the 1968 riots and later in radical students' movements, a minister of Health in the socialist governments of Mitterrand, and the representative of UN in Kosovo. Now he has been appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs by Nicholas Sarkozy, who also appointed to his cabinet other members of the Socialist Party, although his strong majority does not require it. The Socialist Party is very upset and has ousted Kouchner (anything bipartisan is considered betrayal in France).  

Zinedine Zidane (born 1972) was the most famous football player in the French team and the hero of the World Cup, won by France in 1998. A very gentle and poised man, he speaks with this typical chanting accent from Marseille ; a hero and a living example for the whole community of "beurs" (French of Algerian origin). He always ranks among the most-loved French personalities.




 Personalities of the recent past    


Paul Bocuse (1926-2018) : grounded in traditional regional cooking, this great innovator has shaken up French cuisine. A"classical" chef, he insisted on the quality of products and spent a lot of time away from his (magnificient) restaurant near Lyon to promote French cuisine in Japan. This iconic chef was very popular in France and the French were impressed by his private life : feeding the stereotypes about Frenchmen, for decades, he had a wife and two quasi-wives (he used to say :"In all, I have been married 145 years"). Now, his wife N°1 and their daughter run the restaurant, the son he had (with wife N°2) run the Bocuse business (where wife N°3 works).

Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) was the most loved French personality; a priest in the Resistance, his entire life had been devoted to the poor and he became famous in the early 1950s by launching a huge campaign to find shelter for the thousands of homeless people in post-war France ; he founded the Compagnons d'Emmaüs, an association which gives a job (collecting abandoned furniture and clothes) and a place to sleep to the poorest ; these Maisons d'Emmaüs are a network of thriftshops all over the country ; Abbé Pierre was a living icon, considered a saint by most people. Read about the emotion in France when he died.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) : for better and for worse, she set the agenda for the feminist movement with he book "The Second Sex"

Coco Chanel (1894-1971) : the ultimate arbiter of "chic", she released women from the ryranny of fashion, combining style and comfort "luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury"

Coluche (Michel Colucci) (1944-1986) : an extremely popular comedian, in the French traditional graphic, often Rabelaisian and even often scatological style ; he founded the "Restaurants du Coeur" which distributes meals to the poor (60 million meals last year with 40,000 volunteers) 

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


François Hollande (born 1954) was elected President of France in 2012. He is a typical member of the French political establishment (a ENA graduate) and he was the head of the Socialist party for a decade. He is a social-democrat reformist but tighted to the old sacred cows of the French Marxist left. As a person, he is very charming and funny. As the President, he was the least popular of all presidents of France (less than 15% of the people say they like it at the end of his 5-year term) and, by all standards, his term can be considered a disastrous one

.Johnny Hallyday (1943-2017) is still among the most popular singers in France ; a rock star, he was one of the few French singers who could fill a 80,000-seat stadium several days in a row with his spectacular performances, even a few weeks before his death ; even though many people mocked his corny music, his unsophisticated way of talking and his look of an aging rocker, most liked him as a person and followed with indulgence his (many) successive marriages with younger and younger girls. A uniquely French phenomenon, he sold more than 110 million records and acted in more than 30 films. The whole country was devastated when he died and the government decided to offer him a "hommage populaire"(popular tribute) on the Champs-Elysées for his funeral December 9, 2017, attended by a million people (and 800 bikers). In giant letters, the Eiffel Tower said : "Merci Johnny". Two months later, in his will desinheriting his children, he illustrated on of the major differences between the French and the US legal systems !


Simone Veil (1928-2017) was the Minister of Health who passed the law legalizing abortion in 1976, amidst a huge controversy where she demonstrated impressive political courage and moral strength against her extreme-right opponents. She survived Auschwitz, where she had been deported with her family in 1944. In 1979, she became the first president of the European Parliament. She was extremely popular for her moral strength and political courage and, for years, remained in the very first places of the "Most popular Personalities" list.


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

To related pages : headlines in the French media, who's who in France (#1), historical heroes (#2), schools namedafter 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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