May 5th, 2022, 12:00 PM

How an Immigrant Beat the Odds

By Jeanne Azoulay
The success story of French producer, entrepreneur, and writer, Jean-Luc Azoulay; featuring an exclusive interview

I often hear about immigration success stories in America; the “American Dream” as we know it has become generic and we seldom hear about the same occurrence in other countries. However, as a French citizen, I am very aware of what I have decided to call the French Dream, the prodigy of international influences upon migration and notably forced migration. Notably, the Jewish community in France, coming from both the Pieds-Noirs community, from North Africa, as well as the Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Both were forcefully moved from their countries albeit the more amicable withdrawal of the Pieds-Noirs.  Jean-Luc Azoulay, a French producer, writer, and CEO is himself a part of this community; he claims his associates were, by a majority, immigrants and oftentimes also Jews. This fact has a deeper meaning than one may observe initially. It is also a symbol of how far France has come in its treatment of the Jewish community as well as being a source of true pride for this persecuted group.

Jean-Luc Azoulay arrived in France in 1962, a few months after his 15th birthday, after he and his family had just been “kicked out” of Algeria. The Algerian War, in which the country gained its independence from France, had resulted in the mass exodus of the European descendant Jewish community.

Leaving his country, his home, his life, he arrived in France with nothing. He and his family first landed in Lyon and then took a train to Toulouse, where his uncle housed them for a few months. His father had been a math teacher in Algeria and so he was quickly appointed to Paris to work as a teacher; he left for Paris alone to have everything in order for the arrival of his son and wife as he was the sole breadwinner. They did not have much money and lived in government low-cost housing (“HLM”) in Malakoff and then Montrouge, right outside of Paris.

Credit: Keystone Press / Alamy Banque D'Images

After finishing high school at the “Lycee Michelet”, Jean-Luc Azoulay started studying medicine at university. In his words, “because most of the family members were doctors and I didn't really know what to do after my baccalaureate”. He had a lot of trouble finding his passion. One day, while listening to the radio, the song “Salut Les Copain” by Sylvie Vartan, a popular singer and starlet at the time, came on. Jean-Luc immediately became a fan; so much so he created and became the president of the Sylvie Vartan fan club. He fondly recounts the times when he would wait for Sylvie, outside her show, with a placard; just to see the starlet walk by. Little did he know, she would be his future employer. 

Through this endeavor, he was first able to meet Sylvie Vartan’s secretary, Carlos. Eventually, he became the secretary of Carlos; the secretary of a secretary. However, when Carlos became a celebrity himself, Jean-Luc Azoulay took over the role of secretary for Sylvie. 

 “My first tour with Sylvie was in 1970; I was studying medicine and simultaneously was Sylvie’s secretary. She offered me to accompany her on her tour to Japan where she was and remains a big star. In 1970, Japan was a “distant” country and no one went there. So, I decided to go with her despite my June [medical university] exams as I told myself I would pass them in September. 

“The tour was amazing: 30 cities across all of Japan. It did not resemble modern Japan; there were still houses made of paper and wood because of earthquakes. But, this is also where I discovered the first electronic gadgets. It is there that I ate sushi for the first time, and for 15 years, people here in Paris did not want to believe that I had eaten raw fish.

“Sylvie was very successful everywhere… The public was amazing, it’s an incredible memory. When we returned to Paris, Sylvie had more concerts in France and I continued to follow her [assist her in her work] and I never passed my fourth year [medical university] exams.” 

A few years later, in 1976, Sylvie decided to move to the United States Jean-Luc decided to stay. He got in contact with Claude Berda. Claude was the son of a rich businessman whom he had worked with during his job as a secretary. Jean-Luc Azoulay had creative ideas and Claude had money and drive. In 1977 they launched their production company “AB production”; A for Azoulay, B for Berda. Azoulay would take care of the creative side and Berda was going to take care of the finances. 

They first adapted a disco version of the song Mustapha created by Bob Azzam and sold 100,000 copies. They also created discs for a young audience such as “Le Petit Prince'', narrated by Jean Marais. Then in 1978, Jean-Luc discovered “Dorothée” and launched her into stardom. He started with a TV show called “Dorothée et ses Amis”. He then decided to create music and songs and produced Dorothée’s first album “Hou! La Menteuse'' which sold 1,500,000 copies and ranked number one in sales for 9 weeks. In two years they sold four million discs which allowed Jean-Luc Azoulay to create a name for himself in the music industry. 


For the first few years of his career, Jean-Luc Azoulay created an alias, as he did not want to be famous, and was known as Jean-Francois Porry. This worked until the media finally uncovered his “true identity”.

Having been in Japan multiple times, the French producer also became accustomed to a foreign genre of television called “Anime” which he decided to bring to France. He even wrote and produced the theme songs for some of these series, including Dragon Ball, GI Joe, and One Piece. He also made the French song for the Smurfs. 

Furthermore, he also was the pioneer of French sitcoms. His most popular ones were Salut les Musclés, Premiers Baisers and Hélène et les Garçons. Hélène et les Garçons had up to six million viewers on TF1. One of his most popular creations was “Le Club Dorothée '' which was a live audience show animated by Dorothée. 

“Another memorable tour was with Dorothée. It took place in China in 1990. Few people went to China at this point and Dorothée had been invited to the Shanghai festival because of her triumph at Bercy [a popular concert venue located in Paris]. In Shanghai, there were no buildings back in the day and people used bicycles as their mode of transportation. Dorothée was very successful and filled a  stadium with 80 000 people… it was remarkable.”

Eventually, Claude Berda and Jean-Luc Azoulay had an amicable separation caused by an array of events; notably the instability caused by the shift of influence in the French audiovisual business. Berda kept the business side and Jean-Luc, the creative rights. This is when he created JLA productions, which is now Groupe JLA and includes multiple audiovisual production sub-companies. Jean-Luc Azoulay works every day; Monday through Sunday and his work is truly his passion and life source. I believe this is the reason for his success.  


Smoking Saves - A story from Jean-Luc Azoulay

“We had just finished a filming tour around the world with the Club Dorothée: Paris, Bangkok, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York. The last trip was from New York to Paris. Dorothée had to attend a television program the next day and since we had done a good job so far and had not spent too much money, I decided to treat the crew by taking first class instead of business. So, I called Air France to ask them to upgrade the tickets. They told me that the first class was complete. Back in the day, we could switch companies [with the same tickets] and so I called TWA which had a plane that landed approximately at the same time. The telephone responder was very kind and placed the reservation and gave me our seat numbers. 

“While on the plane, at the last moment, Dorothée, who was sitting next to me, signaled me to ensure we were not on a non-smoking flight. The flight attendant responded “I am sorry sir, it’s a non-smoking flight”— it was 1995 and these idiot Americans had already invented non-smoking flights. Dorothée and I looked at each other and agreed we would rather take a smoker flight in business class than not smoke in first class. So I canceled our reservations and we took the Air France plane we were originally booked for. 

“The airplane we left that day was the flight TWA 800 which crashed after taking off. No one survived the crash. Sadly, some of our friends had remained on the flight and lost their lives. When we arrived, many people thought us dead as the news of the crash had already reached the media and we were unable to receive messages during the flight. 

“So this is how the cigarette saved my life.”