Jane Birkin: The French star with the 'incomparable British accent'

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Jane Birkin: The French star with the 'incomparable British accent'
British actress Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg at the Cannes Film Festival 1976. Photo by AFP

Singer, actress and fashion inspiration, Jane Birkin became an icon in France with her unmistakable British accent.


A huge star in France, the announcement of her death at the age of 76 on Sunday prompted an outpouring of tributes from the great and the good, and many newspaper front pages.


Birkin catapulted to fame through her turbulent relationship with legendary singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and her heavily accented French, which became one of her signatures in her adopted home.

With her flared jeans, mini dresses and distinctive fringe, Birkin was the ultimate It girl in the 1970s.


In 1984, Hermès named one of its handbags after her, which remains a sought-after status symbol - legend has it that the large Hermès Birkin bag was created after a conversation with Jane about her handbag needs, as a mother of two. 

Tributes poured in from across the country following her death.

President Emmanuel Macron led off calling Birkin "a complete artist" adding that: "Because she incarnated freedom and because she sang the most beautiful words in our language, she was a French icon".

"Unimaginable to live in a world without your light in it," singer Etienne Daho, one of her close friends, wrote on Instagram.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne hailed her as an "unforgettable icon, a unique voice and charm" who "with her music and her talent transcended generations".


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said: "Jane Birkin, the most Parisian of Englishwomen, has left us. We will never forget her songs, her laughter or her incomparable accent, which were always with us. My thoughts go out to her family and to all those who loved her. And there are many of them."

Communist party leader Fabien Roussel also praised her "voice and inimitable accent", adding with a pun that she had filé à l’anglaise - to 'make an English exit' or leave without saying goodbye.


Born in London, Birkin crossed the Channel in 1968 at the age of 22 to star in a film alongside Gainsbourg, who was 18 years her senior.

It was the start of a 13-year relationship that made them France's most famous couple, in the spotlight as much for their bohemian and hedonistic lifestyle as for their work.


Birkin, with her soft voice and androgynous silhouette, quickly became a sex symbol, recording a steamy duo with a growling Gainsbourg in 1969, "Je t'aime... moi non plus".

Banned on radio in several countries and condemned by the Vatican, the song was a worldwide success.

"He and I became the most famous of couples in that strange way because of 'Je t'aime' and because we stuck together for 13 years 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," she said.

The daughter of an actress and a naval officer, Birkin married James Bond composer John Barry, with whom she had a daughter, Kate. The marriage lasted three years.

She moved to France after meeting Gainsbourg on the set of a romantic comedy in which he was her co-star.

They had a daughter, Charlotte, who became a hugely successful actress and singer.


The musical and romantic relationship between Gainsbourg and Birkin was famously tempestuous.

During one of their raging rows, Birkin tossed herself into the River Seine after throwing a custard pie in Gainsbourg's face.

She blazed her own trail after walking out on France's favourite bad boy in 1980.

But she remained forever associated with Gainsbourg, who continued to write songs for her after their split, including "Les dessous chics" 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 told AFP in a 2018 interview.

He continued to write songs for her and they worked together until his death in 1991. Birkin continue to tour and record albums for the rest of her life, in addition to acting.

In her around 70 films she has worked with leading directors including Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, James Ivory and Agnes Varda.

Her oldest daughter, Kate Barry, a photographer, died in an apparent suicide in 2013.

She fought leukaemia in the late 1990s and in 2021 suffered a minor stroke, and earlier this year has been forced to cancel concerts due to health problems.

Birkin is survived by her daughter with Gainsbourg, Charlotte - a well-known actress in France - and daughter Lou Doillon, a singer, from a 13-year relationship with French director Jacques Doillon.


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