WATCH: France bids a huge final farewell to rocker Hallyday

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A 'national homage' to French rocker Johnny Hallyday began in Paris Saturday with an honour guard of up to 700 bikers following his hearse down the Champs Elysees.

Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of the French capital to bid a final farewell to the 74-year-old singer known as the French Elvis, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday.

Some fans cried as Hallyday's body, in a white coffin, was driven down the grand ceremonial avenue towards the Madeleine church for his funeral ceremony.

Diehard fans of the leather-clad "French Elvis" began to gather overnight in an outpouring of emotion that France has not seen since the death of singer Edith Piaf.

As the huge cortege paused on the Champs Elysees his band members began playing his greatest hits from a specially built stage in front of the church.

"All my life I listened to him morning, noon and night," said lifelong fan Claude Broos, who travelled from Belgium to watch the procession.

"Even now I can't believe that he is dead, I shed a tear," said 36-year-old Johnny Bernard who camped overnight on the Champs Elysees with his wife and daughter.

A huge portrait of the singer hung from the facade of the grand Madeleine church, with fans -- hundreds of whom had spent the night in the surrounding streets -- singing his songs and doing the twist to keep warm on a bright but freezing cold morning.

Television stations cleared their schedules to broadcast the "people's tribute" live, ensuring that the "beast of the stage", who sold more than 110 million records, went out with one last big show.

His funeral will begin with "brief" tributes by French President Macron and one of his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy -- a big fan of the singer, who conducted the rocker's fifth marriage and once tried to lure him back from tax exile.

Pop cultural idol

The ceremony will also end with a concert by his band in front of the Madeleine, which also hosted Chopin's funeral in 1849.

That the French government had to invent a new type of ceremony to honour the singer, who was almost unknown outside the French-speaking world, speaks volumes about his pop cultural cachet.

"He was someone who really counted in French people's lives," Sarkozy said of the man who was credited with introducing rock 'n' roll to the land of chanson ballads.

"For lots of people Johnny represents the idea of happiness. He leaves a huge hole," the former president said.

But for some in Hallyday's white working-class fan base, the fact that he will be buried in the French Caribbean island of Saint Barts -- where he had a home -- added to the heartache.

Veteran French pop star Michel Polnareff, an old friend of the star's, said Friday that he found it "strange that his fans should be deprived of Johnny" in this way.

Others found it hard to swallow that an idol adored for his "ordinariness and simplicity" should be laid to rest in a millionaires' hideaway.

His body will be flown to the island on Sunday morning and buried on Monday.

Fans' grief

One fan, Francois Le Lay, told AFP that "we would have preferred if he was buried in Paris, but if Johnny wanted that, we will respect it".

"My wife and I will put the money aside that we would have spent going to his concerts so we can fly to Saint Barts one day," he said.

Other fans demanded that a monument be built in France to the star, who was abandoned by his parents as a baby and brought up by an aunt and uncle, who were cabaret performers.

While not all French people were taken by his often derivative American-rooted rock, with one critic labelling him "France's independent musical nuclear deterrent", his mark on national life was undeniable.

"There is a before and after Johnny Hallyday," said Michka Assayas, author of the "New Dictionary of Rock".

Philosopher Raphael Enthoven said it was difficult to underplay the effect of Hallyday's passing.

"He was an idol. His death is that of a god who was in fact mortal," he told French radio.

"People say they can't believe he is dead because their belief in him will never die. Many people never believed that Elvis died. It's the same for Johnny."