Swing music was, of course, also played by French musicians, and French singer Johnny Hess starred in a Parisian swing cabaret at Le Bagdad at the Rues du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in May 1938. His song Je suis swing became the hit of the production, and the record is released in February 1939, just about half a year before the outbreak of World War Two. Paris was swinging, and Hess would later release Ils sont zazous! to celebrate this particular subculture. Other musicians would be included in the movement, perhaps most notably Django Reinhardt, who played with Alix Combelle at Jimmy's Bar in Montparnasse, an establishment that had Johnny Hess as an artistic director.
There were Zazou in throughout France, but they were, of course, concentrated to Paris. The two most important meeting places were the terrace of the Pam Pam cafe on the Champs Elysees and the Boulevard Saint-Michel near the Sorbonne, but they also met in the cellar clubs of the Dupont-Latin or the Capoulade. The Zazous were typically middle class, and the older and more well-to-do tended to socialize around the Champs Elysees, while the crowd of the Quartier Latin tended to be younger.
The French version of swing kids wore plaid, and lots of plaid. The male Zazou wore zoot suits with oversize jackets hanging down to their knees and narrow pants cut short above the ankle to show off brightly colored socks. Their hairstyles were greased giant quiffs with the hair in the back reaching down towards the particularly high collars kept in place by a horizontal pin. They wore narrow ties and platform shoes of a style that wouldn't be too far from seventies glam footwear. During the cold months they preferred long sheepskin-lined jackets. The females wore jackets with extremely wide shoulders and short pleated skirts, also with platform shoes, and they refrained from hats, preferring to show off a single dyes or bleached lock in their hairdos. Oversized sunglasses completed the look, and a fur coat might be added to ward off cold. Both men and women quite often carried curved-handle umbrellas as an accessory supposedly mimicking British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who was regarded as a style icon. Following a government decree in 1942 to collect the hair from barber shops to make slippers and similar items, the Zazou tended to grow their hair longer in protest. A number of Zazou were vegetarians, and their signature cocktail was fruit juice or beer with grenadine. The novelist and anarchist Boris Vian was also part of the Zazou scene, being the writer of several articles on both American jazz and jazz in France and also composing songs of his own.
Following the German invasion of France on May 10, 1940, the French Minister of the Interior ordered the dance halls of France to be closed, but most cabarets and clubs remained open. Recording studios closed as the German victory seemed increasingly certain. Following the signing of the armistice on June 22, France found itself split into a German-occupied zone in the north and the Vichy French puppet state in the south under Marshal Philippe Pétain. It should be noted that jazz was never prohibited by the German forces occupying France, although such was not allowed in Alsace, which had been annexed by the Third Reich. It can even be argued that jazz thrived during the occupation, since music became a breath of fresh air for young people. Jazz provided a glimpse of a free world, and of America as opposed to the harshness of the German occupation and the Vichy regime.
Most of the French entertainment industry went back to business in August 1940, but austere measures such as rationing and requisitioning were to become increasingly prevalent. Laws against Jews and dissidents were also introduced during the Fall of 1940. Both the German occupiers and the Vichy regime shared a similar attitude towards culture, with ultra-conservative morality being increasingly enforced by laws and edicts. Vichy France created a Ministry of Youth in 1940 to properly educate the French youth in the virtues of moral, productivity, labor, family and patriotism. The Zazou are especially targeted for being perceived as subversive slackers. Between 1940 and 1943, the French press published over a hundred articles against the Zazou phenomenon. As in so many other cases, segments of urban youth would have little of this, and the Zazou continued gathering in clubs, at parties and in cinemas.The first "Festival of Swing" was organized by Charles Delauney on December 19, 1940, and it should be noted that the German occupiers privately didn't mind modern music: Johnny Hess was also quite popular amongst the Germans in France. A second "Festival of Swing" was organized on February 2, 1941, which featured Django Reinhardt and orchestra at the Salle Pleyel.
1941 also saw the establishment of French resistance movements, and laws against Communist and Anarchist activities were introduced on August 14, 1941. During the winter of 1941-42 "retaliation closures" of bars, restaurants, clubs and cinemas became more and more common as the Resistance increased its activities. The French jazz culture was, however, increasingly harassed by Nazis and French Fascists, with the German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banning the "rhythms of belly-dancing negroes".
The American entry into the war meant that American themes weren't allowed any more, but most American popular culture was promptly francofied. For example, the song Gotta Date in Louisiana became We Come to Lausanne. However, on May 13, 1942, Le Figaro denounced the Zazou and the vogue of jazz in an editorial, and although there were government-approved forms of jazz to be enjoyed, attacks on the Zazou became increasingly common. The Zazous would apparently react to this by shouting "Swing", giving a little hop, then crying out, "Zazou hey, hey, hey, za Zazou!," followed by three slaps on the hip, two shrugs of the shoulder and a turn of the head. But worse was to come. Arrests and raids against jazz establishments were carried out by the police during the summer of 1942, as the Zazou were seen as work-shy, egotistical and Judeo-Gaullist shirkers. The Zazou become " the number one enemy " of the Jeunesse Populaire Française (JPF), the Fascist French youth organization of the collaborationist Parti Populaire Français. The blue-uniformed JPF would use Scalpez les zazous! as their warcry and attack Zazou with fists, clippers and scissors in bars and on the streets. Many Zazou that were old enough were arrested and sent to labor camps in the French countryside.
Furthermore, the first arrests of some 22,000 Parisian Jews took place between July 16 and July 21. Another 5,000 Jews were arrested in Vichy France on August 15. As a reaction to the pogroms, some Zazou took to wearing a yellow Star of David on their clothing with the words "swing", "zazou" or "goy" written in the star. Some Zazou were promptly sent to the Drancy internment camp accused of being "Friends of Jews", although they were usually released, unless they were political undesireables or homosexuals.
After the liberation in 1944, Eddie Barclay, wartime jazz pianist, legendary lounge lizard and founder of the French record industry followed their example and established the first nightclub to dispense with live music. However, much of the French swing scene disappeared after the war, with many of the stars of the war era seen as collaborators, and with the likes of Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour becoming the new voices of French post-war music.