By Emmanuel Legrand
With the passing of Jean-Francois Michel, the global creative community has lost one of its most active agents and his friends and family have lost a fantastic human being.
Jean-Francois died July 23 at the age of 69 following a long illness. He tried to stay active as long as he could, keeping in touch with his teams and following ongoing projects, always looking at the future.
He has been involved all his life in the creative sector. Until most recently he was the founder and secretary general of Brussels-based European Music Office, a lobbying organisation set up to push music-industry related issues before the European Commission. At the EMO, he has been a constant defender of the notion that it was necessary to support creativity through various schemes and mechanisms to increase cultural diversity and boost cross-borders cultural exchanges.
He was also the director of Diversités, a non-profit organisation set up to promote inter-cultural exchanges. He was also chairman of Les Correspondances, a festival in Manosque, a city close to the Mediterranean sea where he bought an old monastery that he planned to turn into artist’ residencies (for various reasons he eventually sold the location to the city of Manosque).
Jean-Francois started his career in the 70s, running various cultural programmes and concert venues. His influence in the French music sector grew in the early 80s. He was one of the co-founders of the French music awards Les Victoires in 1985, with journalist Claude Fléouter. He was also an adviser to the then Minister of Culture Jack Lang, who was drafting one of the most radical modern copyright laws.
The law created a mandatory provision for the beneficiaries of the neighbouring rights created by the 1985 Copyright Bill to invest in creative projects. To host some of these funds, Jean-Francois set up, with the support of Lang and the industry, the FCM, the Fund for Musical Creation, which he managed from 1984 to 1992.
He then went on to set up the parent of all export offices, the Bureau Export de la Musique in Paris, that would coordinate and develop international strategies for French artists or artists living in France. He was also instrumental in creating the French Music Office (FMO) in New York, to promote French repertoire in the US, and then created the EMO in Brussels.
By switching his interest from France to the rest of the world, Jean-Francois quickly realised he was lacking one key component…he did not speak English at all. So he started to learn the language, to the point that he eventually became able to express himself in public, albeit with the strongest French accent one could imagine. But he did it at an age when most would have given up, because he knew it was necessary.
Jean-Francois was a friend and someone I knew I could rely on. I’ve known him since I started in journalism in the mid-80s. He was then running the FCM. We started working on projects together when, alongside a few partners, I had the crazy idea to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989 in New York with French artists. Jean-Francois backed the project immediately and helped us go through the hurdles of the financing. The event was a success and helped him "sell" the idea to the music industry and the French government to set up the FMO.
We have since seen each other as regularly as our schedules allowed. I always enjoyed our encounters. We always had projects to discuss, but once the order of the day was over, we would engage in long conversations about “tout et rien” as the French say, “everything and nothing”, over tasty food and a good bottle of wine.
I last saw Jean-Francois in May when I had dinner with him. We went to a restaurant close to his apartment in Paris, which was his canteen (Le Bascou, very good indeed). He was frail but still had good appetite. We shared a few glasses of wine (authorised by the doctor!) over foie gras and assorted delicacies. And we talked, a lot, as usual, about the music business, about his health (he told me chemo no longer had an effect on the illness), about projects, about family (he was very proud of one of his daughters becoming a successful stand-up comedian) about life (he obviously knew time was scarce but he was looking forward to the future).
We had a few European projects in the making and I was procrastinating over one of them, and he friendlily urged me, in his usual mild manner (“it would be really nice if you could find time to finish the note that we need for the board by the end of the week”) that got him to get people do things (of course, I wrote the note the following day, to the desired effect!).
He was good with people, that was his main strength, but he was also a good strategist and a doer. He knew how to get things done in his own Byzantine way. He knew how to aggregate goodwill on specific projects (and he always had a few in his bag) and convince people to join in. That probably came from his background: He was destined to be a priest, but before being ordinated, he found another kind of love and went on to marry and have kids. But he always kept that demeanour of a cardinal that would have had him do marvels at the Vatican.
I you allow a poor analogy, he was a mix of a consigliere, someone you would go to for advices, and a padrino, someone who would get things done and whom you would do favours to (of course, without the violence, and the bad karma…).
I remember going with Jean-Francois to a meeting with European bureaucrats, and we were kept waiting in some corridor without chairs to sit on for over an hour. After a half an hour, I erupted and said that this was beyond being impolite. Jean-Francois smiled at me and, as someone who had done that many times before, told me to be patient. That’s the way he was. If it took him to wait hours to reach out to the people he needed to support his projects, he would do so. Time was on his side because eventually he would get to where he wanted (well, not always, but most of the time).
That evening in May, I walked him back to his door. We said a few more words (he once again urged me to write the note…). We kissed, waved goodbye. I told him to look after himself. And that was the last time I saw him.
Adieu, Jean-Francois. I will miss you. You were a great human being who made other people’s lives richer.
I’m sure you find some projects up there to keep you busy because I can’t see you standing still, but don’t let the bureaucrats out there spoil your time.
Jean-Francois’ funeral took place on July 30 in Normandy. A public tribute will be held on September 15 at Eglise St Eustache in Paris at 6.30pm.