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Françoise Michel

Françoise Michel

Head of Science and Culture Department

Christophe Simon

Christophe Simon


December 6, 2017, 02:44: « Johnny Hallyday dead, wife tells AFP »

The death of the legendary Johnny sparked a huge outpouring of emotion in France and the French-speaking world. A look back at AFP's coverage of an event that involved staff from Paris to Los Angeles.

The first real sign came in March when Johnny Hallyday made his lung cancer public and vowed to fight it. "Of course, we sent an alert because there had been rumours about his health for weeks," recalls Françoise Michel, head of Science and Culture Department. We then decided to prepare a package of stories about the rock star, working with Bénédicte Rey, a former music journalist now at the Multimedia Archives Department. But you cannot squeeze a 60-year career into a few stories. Once we had scoured the archives, we prepared or updated around 20 angled stories, reports or fact boxes. "There were must-have stories on his songs, his 100 million records sold, his tours, his love life... without forgetting Johnny's cinema career, his politics, his failed reunion with Belgium and his discrete life in California."

After returning to France for treatment, the 74-year-old was rushed to a Paris hospital on November 13 with breathing difficulties. Five days later, he returned home to Marnes-la- Coquette, near Paris. Suddenly, on the evening of November 30, a major media group sent press motorcycles out to his home, sparking rumours of his death on social media. "The situation was getting out of control. We discovered tweets citing AFP with announcements, even including Johnny's death," says Françoise Michel. A call from the rocker's agent Sébastien Farran, to the Agency's music specialist Nicolas Pratviel, calmed everyone down. The two men know each other and met during an event to promote an album of cover songs. "The manager first read out a denial - 'Johnny is at home and resting' - attributed to people close to the artist. Then, after being swamped with messages, he asked to be quoted by name. He then understood the power of AFP because the rumours stopped immediately."

April 29, 1969 – Paris, France – Johnny Hallyday on stage at the Palais des Sports. © Derrick CEYRAC / AFP

Emotion of the flash

On December 6, 2017, Sébastien Farran rang Nicolas Pratviel at 02:34. This time to give him the exclusive news of Johnny's death and dictate a statement from Laetitia, his wife: 'My husband is no more.' The Agency sprang into action. "Nicolas called me and we moved a flash on the wire at 02:44. Those are the moments your heart beats a bit faster," admits Françoise Michel. The lead moved at 03:09 and the first wrap at 03:45. Two teams then took turns to manage the event and a flood of reactions. "We alerted reactions from Brigitte Bardot, Sylvie Vartan and Eddy Michell, as well as the joint statement from Laura and David, the singer's first children."

When it came to the public tribute to Johnny, on December 9, 2017, all the different AFP teams were on deck, in Paris and several other cities around France. Dawn had not yet broken when a journalist from the Science and Culture Department was sent out onto the Champs- Elysées to get comments from fans. Other text reporters soon joined in to divide up the scene while photographers and video journalists shot images from all the key points of the procession. "For the ceremony, we had help from the General News Department, which was following the security arrangements, and the Politics Department because Emmanuel Macron and two former presidents were present at the Madeleine Church," notes Françoise Michel. "Video gave us a huge amount of input from the fans at Marnes-la-Coquette and on the movement of the body -- and photo were everywhere."

December 9, 2017 – Paris, France – A dense crowd masses in front of the Madeleine Church at the end of the funeral ceremony to pay homage to French singer Johnny Hallyday. © Eric FEFERBERG / AFP

December 9, 2017 – Paris, France – Fans throw white roses at a public tribute to the singer as his coffin travels down the Champs-Elysées. © Christophe SIMON / AFP

Incredible enthusiasm

Of the dozen photographers covering the story, two followed the procession from Marnes-la- Coquette to the Champs-Elysées, via a funeral home where the singer's body had been lain to rest. One of them, Christophe Simon, had a front-row seat. "Philippe Lopez and I were on the press motorcycles. I was at the front with our TV colleagues, just behind the Republican Guard, and he was at the back," he explains, adding that he sent 80 photos live during the event. "My bike was stopped when I arrived at the Place de la Concorde but I was able to stay working in the middle of hundreds of bikers who were accompanying Johnny." This was an "impressive" moment, recalls the experienced professional. From that unusual day, he recalls "the massive crowd, this incredible enthusiasm, the Harleys, people throwing flowers in the path of the procession…"

The AFP then covered the arrival of the coffin at the Madeleine Church and President Macron's speech on the church steps. AFP had the same coverage the next day, when Johnny's body left for St. Barts and when it landed on the island. "The burial was private but we also alerted it," says Françoise Michel. The Agency was in action until the very last goodbye.

December 9, 2017 – Paris, France – The hearse carrying Johnny Hallyday's coffin travels down the Champs-Elysées. © Christophe SIMON / AFP

Decoding AFP copy

AFP stories are ranked in order of importance:

A flash is a short, priority format to announce an event of exceptional importance.

An alert can be around a dozen words long, including the source, and should be no longer than a line on the screen, or around  80 characters.

An urgent is a short two-paragraph story containing around 30 words, setting out the first developments in an important event. In the next few minutes, a first lead brings together the main information in a few short paragraphs.

A wrap, sent 20 or 30 minutes after a flash or an alert, pulls together all the different information in order of newsworthiness, along with context and the first bits of analysis.

Focus stories, sidebars, fact boxes and profiles can also be added to later coverage.