- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

PARIS — Disbelieving French fans have accused the country’s aging national pop icon, Johnny Hallyday, of betrayal following the revelation that he has applied to become a Belgian national.

News that the 62-year-old singer known as the “French Elvis” is seeking to become a citizen of France’s small neighbor has been greeted with widespread astonishment.

Bad enough that Mr. Hallyday should consider turning his back on the country that has taken him to its heart — much worse that he should turn instead to the nation which is the butt of more Gallic jokes than any other.

“Johnny chooses Belgium” was the caption of a cartoon featuring Mr. Hallyday singing under a Belgian flag on the front page of the newspaper Le Monde.

The popular radio station, RTL, said the “terrible” news consigned the star to the status of “future ex-national rocker.”

Denis Magdelaine, a 56-year-old shop owner, summed up the sense of disbelief among Hallyday fans.

“Johnny is such a monument it’s hard for the French. His fans will see this as a betrayal. He has to explain why he has made this choice,” he said.

The news has come as a particular shock in France because Mr. Hallyday is an almost exclusively French phenomenon. Viewed largely as a joke outside the Francophone world he was once billed in America as “the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of.”

In what was until now his home country he has sold more than 100 million records in a career spanning 45 years.

His fans include President Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, who were said to have helped him and his young wife, Laeticia, adopt a baby from Vietnam two years ago.

Last night, the Elysees Palace was maintaining a diplomatic silence on the subject of Mr. Hallyday’s decision. But friends of the singer pointed out that he is already half-Belgian: he was born Jean-Philippe Smet in June 1943 to a French mother and Belgian father, Leon Smet. It was only because the elder Mr. Smet was already married to another woman at the time that he was unable to confer his nationality on the child.

Mr. Hallyday had little contact with his father, whose interest in his son only revived when he became famous.

The singer told the magazine Psychologies that one of the few times they met was when his father came to see him during his military service.

“I saw this man who jumped on me talking with a Belgian accent. Behind him I saw seven, eight, nine paparazzi. He left. I realized he had been paid for the photo. I cried all night,” he said.

Cynics have suggested there might be financial reasons behind the decision: unlike France, Belgium does not impose a wealth tax on its citizens.

However, friends say the reasons are more Freudian than fiscal, especially as Mr. Hallyday has said he will continue to live and pay taxes in France.

Carlos Gomez, chief culture editor for the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, who interviewed Mr. Hallyday two weeks ago, said the singer wanted to return to his roots.

“He’s become a father second time around, and this has made him feel instinctively more attached to his own late father,” he said. “Everyone knew Johnny was half-Belgian anyway. His friends call him ‘Le Gros Belge’ (The Fat Belgian).”

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