France’s favourite “petite Anglaise”, the British-born singer and actor Jane Birkin, has died at her home in Paris aged 76.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, paid tribute to Birkin, saying she “embodied freedom and sang the most beautiful words in our language”.
“Jane Birkin was a French icon. A complete artist, her voice was as gentle as her commitments were ardent. She bequeaths us a legacy of songs and images that will never leave us,” Macron tweeted.
Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, said: “She was an unforgettable icon, with a unique voice and a charm.”
In France, Birkin was the “little English girl” who came to Paris in the 1960s, met the legendary French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and with him became one of the era’s most fêted celebrity couples, gaining international notoriety with the erotic song Je t’aime … moi non plus.
Birkin sang, wrote, acted and composed and was regarded in her adopted homeland as an icon of French music in her own right.
Le Monde wrote: “Birkin’s life, apart from Gainsbourg, was a seamless adventure – records, films, theatre, love at first sight and hard knocks.”
She had been forced to postpone concerts in Paris scheduled for May after breaking her shoulder in March 2022. This followed another string of cancelled shows after Birkin had a stroke in September 2021.
“I’ve always been a big optimist, and I realise that it still takes me a little while to be able to be on stage again and with you. I love being with you so much,” she said in a statement at the time.
She was found dead at her home in Paris, French media reported.
Birkin was born in London on 14 December 1946 to an actor mother and naval officer father. At 17 she married the James Bond composer John Barry, a marriage that lasted only three years.
She catapulted to fame after appearing in the 1966 film Blow-Up before crossing the Channel in 1968, at the age of 22, to star in the satirical romantic comedy Slogan alongside Gainsbourg, who was 18 years her senior.
It was the start of a 13-year on- and off-screen relationship that made them France’s most famous couple, in the spotlight as much for their bohemian and hedonistic lifestyle as for their work.
Despite being banned on radio in several countries and condemned by the Vatican because of its overtly sexual lyrics, their song Je t’aime … moi non plus (“I love you … me neither”), released in February 1969, achieved worldwide success and reached No 1 in the UK singles chart.
Their relationship was frequently described as “tumultuous”, and Birkin reportedly wrote in her 2020 diaries that there had been violence. During one of their rows, Birkin launched herself into the River Seine after throwing a custard pie in Gainsbourg’s face.
But she frequently defended the man with whom she became so closely associated, including against charges by one singer that he was a “harasser”, in an interview in the Times in 2020.
“He and I became the most famous of couples in that strange way because of Je t’aime and … he went on being my friend until the day he died. Who could ask for more?” Birkin told CNN in 2006. “So Paris became my home. I’ve been adopted here. They like my accent.”
Birkin and Gainsbourg were together for 12 years and never married. In 1971 they had a daughter, Charlotte, who is an award-winning actor and singer.
They split in 1980 and Birkin branched out from more ditsy film roles to arthouse productions, gaining three nominations at the Césars – France’s Oscars – starting with La Pirate in 1985.
She appeared in 70 or so films under some of France’s leading directors, including Bertrand Tavernier, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and James Ivory.
Some of her most famous acting credits included the 1966 crime comedy Kaleidoscope, a 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and the 1982 mystery Evil Under the Sun.
Gainsbourg continued to write songs for her, including Les dessous chic, about lingerie being used to try to cover up a relationship on the rocks. “It’s the most beautiful song about separation you could ever have,” Birkin said in a 2018 interview.
Her first child, Kate Barry, a fashion photographer who worked for Vogue, died in 2013 at the age of 46. Birkin had another daughter, the singer Lou Doillon, from her 13-year relationship with the director Jacques Doillon.
Beyond cinema, her legacy includes being the name behind the Hermès Birkin handbag, which was launched in 1984. It was reportedly born after a conversation between Birkin and the Hermès chief executive, Jean-Louis Dumas, on a flight from Paris to London, on which they discussed how difficult it was to find a bag that could fulfil Birkin’s needs as a mother of two.
She was made an OBE in 2001 for her services to acting and British-French cultural relations.
The Portishead singer Beth Gibbons said: I’m so sad to hear that Jane Birkin has gone. She was such a beautiful, generous and kind soul. She was one of the nicest people I’ve worked with and always made me feel so at ease.”
Alex Kapranos, the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand, said: “She was a true icon, but also charming sensitive and funny. To be able to perform and record with her was a total honour. I last saw her perform at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris a year ago and she was still as magical as ever.”
The former French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot told the French TV station BFM on Sunday: “This departure is so sad. She was a beautiful person.”