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France awaits word on singer Johnny Hallyday's condition at Cedars-Sinai

French media are camped at San Vicente and Beverly boulevards, but hospital staff won't talk about the 'French Elvis,' who was placed into a medically-induced coma last week.

December 15, 2009|By Bob Pool

Those waiting impatiently for the traffic light to change Monday may not have noticed, but the eyes of France were focused on the corner of Beverly and San Vicente boulevards.

That's where a rock legend known as the "French Elvis" was lying in Cedars-Sinai hospital, slowly coming out of an artificially induced coma in a medical drama that has engrossed the European continent for the last week.

Curious passersby wondering which celebrity had attracted the swarm of reporters and photographers that has been camped out on the corner in tents and satellite trucks were puzzled when told it was pop singer Johnny Hallyday. Throwing in his French nickname didn't help, either.

"You guys are here for an Elvis Presley imitator?" one of them asked a French journalist.

Actually, Hallyday is like Elvis and Michael Jackson rolled into one -- at least according to the breathless Paris-based media horde that has converged on the hospital.

"He's supposed to have introduced rock 'n' roll to France. He's our Elvis," said Benoit Petit, a reporter with BFM TV, a French news channel similar to CNN. "If he were to die, we'd be talking about him all day long."

Keeping vigil has been an exhausting and frustrating experience for the reporters. During breaks, they bypass the Westside's various French bistros in favor of burgers and Jerry's Famous Deli.

By mid-afternoon, Hallyday had reportedly awakened from his coma. The journalists and broadcasters waiting on the corner weren't entirely certain, because that information was coming from Paris, not from across the street.

Officials at Cedars-Sinai have refused to confirm that Hallyday is even a patient, let alone what his condition is. It was unclear whether he was admitted under that name or his real name: Jean-Philippe Smet.

"There is no communication from the hospital," said Katia Clarens, a senior writer for Le Figaro. "There is no medical communication at all. In France, sometimes you can find a doctor or nurse who will talk. Here, they keep the secret."

Clarens said that occasional word of Hallyday's condition has been relayed to France by his family members, who are here with the pop star, and by celebrities who have flocked to the hospital to pay their respects. From Paris, news organizations forward the latest update to reporters on the corner of Beverly and San Vicente, who relay it back to their French audiences.

Still, Hallyday's Los Angeles hospitalization has gone almost unnoticed in this country.

"All the French media is here, but no American media has been here but you," Clarens said.

According to the French journalists, their country is holding its collective Gallic breath that Hallyday will recover quickly enough that he can perform starting Jan. 8, when he is scheduled to resume a seven-month "farewell tour" that's called "Route 66."

That name is a nod to both Hallyday's age -- he's 66 -- and his longtime appreciation of American rock music and its roots.

According to French reports, Hallyday's condition is the result of an allegedly botched recent back surgery to repair a disc that was damaged when he fell on his yacht near Monaco during the summer. Hallyday's producer, Jean-Claude Camus, labeled the operation, which was performed at a clinic that is popular with celebrities, "a complete butchery."

Hallyday arrived in Los Angeles on Dec. 7. Photos of him being pushed through LAX in a wheelchair shocked the French.

Hallyday's hospitalization even attracted the attention of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who called the singer "greatly loved."

Said Sarkozy: "I have confidence in him . . . he's tough."

The mixture of a frenzied news media, pushy promoters and a medical mystery has led to comparisons with pop icon Michael Jackson's death in June on the eve of his own comeback tour. Like Jackson, Hallyday has a large (20 million euros) insurance policy that will pay off if he is unable to perform on the tour.

Valerie Cantie, a journalist who is reporting on Hallyday for Radio France, had a comparison of her own for the two music stars.

"I covered Michael Jackson's death," she said. "I'm more exhausted with Johnny Hallyday."

Times staff writer Randy Lewis contributed to this report.

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