Up until the early 80's, France owned the Eurovision in many ways. They had a very distinct formula that most of their entries kept close to, and they almost exclusively landed among the five best placed songs every year.
In the 80's, however, the formula grew tired and the votes stopped coming in. France Télévisions (or Antenne 2 as the channel was still called) first scrapped the national final, then decided to depart from anything France had ever sounded like before.
In 1990, the head of entertainment Marie-France Brière called up the mythical Serge Gainsbourg and asked him to create another eurosong - twenty-five years after winning with "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" - and he brought in a very exotic element indeed.
Joëlle Ursull was part of the zouk movement - exotically flavoured music from the Caribbean - and she was taken in to perform "White And Black Blues", a song rending hommage to the diversity and colourfulness of the French population.
France, who in all fairness never cared much for minorities and such through history, found themselves pushing the limits for how you could look and sound at Eurovision. The likes of Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia had tried being exotic, but when an established country like France did the same thing - then the votes started flowing in. See the live performance here.
Joëlle Ursull - White And Black Blues (France 1990)
This was the start of something new and given the commercial success of "White And Black Blues", the French decided to push the limit even further. Given the tension surrounding the current Gulf War, it was a strike of genius to select Tunisian-born Amina to perform a distinctly Arab-flavoured song that contemplated the world order in a quiet, understated way.
The new formula worked again, and Amina was only a tiny rule paragraph away from winning the whole thing in Rome. See the live performance here.
Amina - C'est le dernier qui à parlé qui à raison (France 1991)
By 1992, more countries had picked up on the exotic vibe, making rastaman Kali stand out less with his creole entry in Malmö. Some negative publicity, emerging from some not too cleverly formulated statements given by the performer, may also have been the reason for a slight decline compared to the previous years. And honestly, maybe this song was slightly less striking as well.
Kali - Monté la riviè (France 1992)
It might look like France tried to go back to their old formula a bit in 1993, but selecting a song partially in a national minority language was, in fact, a statement in its own right. The song fared well at Eurovision, less so in the charts, but the performer was to carve a solid place in French showbiz in the coming years.
Patrick Fiori - Mama Corsica (France 1993)
The two following years, France2 (the new name given to Antenne2 in 1993) explored other musical landscapes, but were back on the etno track in 1996 - now putting a more serious emphasis on minority matters as the French entry - for the first time - was performed completely in a minority language - Breton.
It was a clever idea, given the Irish domination as well as the Celtic flavour of the 1995 Norweigan winner, but the selected song was ultimately too thin to break through to the juries. This was the first real French flop at Eurovision for ten years.
Dan Ar Braz & L'Héritage des Celtes - Diwanit bugale (France 1996)
The last entry to date selected by France2 (but we didn't know it yet at that time) was another truly exotic offering. Legend has it, it was favoured by the channel after one of the old masters of television entertainment (Pacal Sevran) openly called the song unsuitable for Eurovision.
Maybe the old monsieur was not all wrong, after all. 1998 was the first year when televote was in (almost) full use, and what had impressed the juries did not necessarily work with the viewing audience. Despite enthusaistic reviews from the press, the French entry crashed and burned, ending second last.
Marie Line - Où aller (France 1998)
Since then, France has gone in different directions, again trying to broaden the idea of what a eurovision entry could look and sound like. But one thing is for sure - culturally, the importance of these French entries in the 90's could not be over-estimated. They helped breathing new life into the Eurovision formula, as well as promoting less square and uniformly "european" expressions on stage.
Hats off to France - it didn't get them a victory, but in the long run it did change the public perception of what was possible to get away with and not. Well done.