Rocker Hallyday buried in Caribbean to dismay of ex-wife and fans

Amandine Ascensio with Fiachra Gibbons in Paris
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Flowers adorn the tomb of French rock icon Johnny Hallyday in the Lorient cemetery on the French Caribbean island of St Barts on December 11, 2017

French rock icon Johnny Hallyday was laid to rest in a private ceremony in the West Indies on Monday despite his first wife and many of his fans bemoaning a burial so far from mainland France.

Hundreds of thousands of people had thronged the centre of Paris on Saturday for a "people's tribute", with at least 12 million people watching the ceremony for the star on television.

France has not seen such an outpouring of emotion for a singer since the death of Edith Piaf.

His burial on the French Caribbean island of St Barts was much more intimate, with 30 bikers accompanying his close family and friends including film star Jean Reno to a tiny seaside cemetery.

The ceremony, from which cameras were banned, started more than a half an hour late after one of the mourners was taken ill.

A rainbow appeared in the sky as his white coffin was lowered into the grave which was later showered with flowers.

Hours before, Hallyday's first wife Sylvie Vartan said she was heartbroken that he was being buried there.

"It is with a broken heart that I must accept the idea that Johnny will be buried today," the 1960s pop star said in a statement to AFP.

"It is very sad that Johnny will be so far from all of us who loved him so much," she added.

Veteran pop star Michel Polnareff, an old friend of the man they called the French Elvis, also said he found it "strange that his fans should be deprived of Johnny" in this way.

- 'Part of our heritage' -

"He's part of our heritage. I find it unthinkable that all those like myself who are inconsolable now should be prevented from paying their respects" at his grave, Polnareff said.

Many of Hallyday's mainly working-class fans who lined the streets of Paris on Saturday were also upset that the singer would be so far away.

But the Caribbean island's leader Bruno Magras told AFP that Hallyday had always wanted to be buried there.

His said the motorcycle-mad singer, who is credited with introducing France to rock 'n' roll, told him "several times he wanted to be buried here. He didn't want to go to Pere Lachaise," the famous Paris cemetery where the tomb of the Doors singer Jim Morrison has become a place of pilgrimage.

Vartan, 73, did not accompany Hallyday's white coffin to St Barts, though their son David, along with Laura Smet, Hallyday's daughter with actress Nathalie Baye, was among the mourners at the graveside.

Several of the bikers were later seen leaving the cemetery in tears.

Vartan and Hallyday were the golden couple of French pop in the 1960s, but their marriage -- which ended in 1980 -- was often stormy.

Hallyday attempted suicide in 1966 because he was afraid she was about to leave him.

Vartan said that "Johnny will always be in my heart... after 17 passionate years together, I can tell you first love never dies."

A leather-clad showman who was almost unknown abroad, Hallyday died of lung cancer on Wednesday aged 74.

Ahead of the burial, hundreds of islanders dressed in white -- the colour of mourning in the West Indies -- kept a vigil through the night at a "public wake" for the singer.

Two of them, Sidonie and Mirko, who described Hallyday as "kind and unstarry", told how he would sometimes sing at a local restaurant a "little like we do when we do karaoke".

Marie-Helene Delcasse, of the Friends of Johnny Hallyday and Rock 'n' Roll fan group, said "it will be difficult for fans to go and see him" on the island.

Another fan, Francois Le Lay, said he understood that five-times-married Hallyday would have wanted privacy, but "we would have preferred if he was buried in Paris. But if Johnny wanted that, we will respect it."