Music with Menaces

France’s Blood-Curdling Signature Tune

Almost every French government since the Revolution has hated its national anthem. Booed at French cup finals, mangled by Serge Gainsbourg and beloved by French racists, just what is wrong with La Marseillaise?

Everyone remembers that scene in Casablanca. A party of jackbooted Nazis gather around the piano in Rick’s and begin singing Die Wacht am Rhein. At other tables, cowed huddles of Vichy French droop into their small cognacs. The corrupt chief of police raises a neyebrow. But, wait! A brave East European resistance hero is striding over the band. "Play the Marseillaise!”, he commands. “Play it!". The bandleader glances at the club’s American owner, Humphrey Bogart, who nods. The band strikes up, everyone sings. Even the young French whore, who had been touting for business over at the Germans’ table, belts out the anthem, tears and snot dribbling down her face. Overwhelmed, the Nazis beat a hasty retreat. The room erupts with liberty, equality and fraternity. 

Of course, sometimes La Marseillaise works in reverse. In October 2002 in Paris's Stade de France, Corsica's Bastia met Brittany's Lorient in the French soccer cup final. Played before the start of the match, the national anthem provoked a barrage of whistles and jeers by nationalist Corsican fans who began throwing bottles at two government ministers, both women, who had been greeting the players on the pitch.

The Marseillaise is maybe the most rollicking of all national anthems. The tune is bumptious and springy while the words of the seven long verses (with a chorus after each) combine blood-curdling threat, empty boasts and wheedling self-pity. Only the French could sing with a straight face.

It was composed over a night in Strasbourg during the French Revolution (24 April 1792) as a propaganda exercise by amateur musician and captain of engineers Rouget de Lisle. 

Printed up and distributed to the army, it was played at a patriotic banquet at Marseilles. Revolutionary soldiers from the town, the Provençal volunteers, entered Paris singing this song, and to its infectious beat, they stormed the Tuileries. The Convention accepted it as the French national anthem in a decree passed on 14 July 1795.

After that, with a few tweaks here and there (Hector Berlioz rearranged the tune in 1830) the future of the Marseillaise was assured. With its fist-shaking menaces against foreigners and tyrants alike, hardliners on both the right and the left all over France have adopted it as their signature tune. (And not only in France. In 1917, after the collapse of the tsarist regime, the Marseillaise became the national anthem of Russia until it was replaced by the Bolsheviks with The Internationale, which is even bloodthirstier.)

Not everyone is happy. In 1999, the 83-year-old charity campaigner Abbé Pierre and founder of the world-famous Emmaus human rights organisation led a campaign condemning the "vile" lines of the Marseillaise, claiming it was an "incitement to racism" and should be rewritten to reflect the French “love of peace”. After all, he wrote to President Chirac warning against its racist overtones, “It is regrettable that a country which claims to be peaceful can have a national anthem whose chorus concedes the existence on this Earth of 'impure' blood.” Chirac made no reply.

The abbé’s warnings seem prophetic. Singing the Marseillaise has been adopted as a mainstay of any mass rally by the far-right party, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s le Front National and, in 2002, it was Le Pen who made it through the first round of the presidential elections to face Chirac himself in the run-off, and all to the ominous chorus of “Marchons! Marchons!” Left-wing parties struck back by reclaiming the revolutionary anthem as their own. This leads to much confusion during traditional May Day street demonstrations when stringy-bearded Trotskyite marchers find themselves accidentally mingling with thick-necked skinheads on a counter-demonstrations, both chanting the same national anthem.

Caught somewhere in the middle, Chirac’s notoriously trendy education minister Jack Lang once sent out 72,000 copies of a CD featuring the national anthem to schools all over France. "The Marseillaise is not just our national anthem, it is also an international hymn to liberty and deserves to be better known and understood by all our pupils”, he said.

The CD includes the traditional version with orchestra and warbling sopranos but also fifteen other interpretations – from jazz, Arabic and house to, naturally, Serge Gainsbourg’s much-hooted version.

It is ironic that the only reason the Marseillaise may be known to young people around the world anyway is that the Beatles sampled its bombastic opening bars for their 1967 hit “All You Need Is Love”. And the only reason John Lennon did that was so they he could contrast the militaristic violence it idealised with his own message of peace and toleration.


No Royalties for the Royalist

Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836), who wrote the words and music of the Marseillaise, was horrified when it became a hit tune for the Revolution. He was a Royalist and refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new constitution. Cashiered, imprisoned and barely escaping the guillotine, he was set free after the Revolution only to find that the French government had claimed the copyright of the song for itself.

Variations on the Theme. Many musicians have sampled, stolen or provided variations from the Marseillaise ranging from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (which uses its theme to symbolise pulverisation of Napoleon’s army by Russian cannon) to Django Reinhardt’s "Echoes of France" to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”. The most controversial version was that by ludicrously publicity-seeking, French rocker Serge Gainsbourg who recorded a reggae dub, "Aux Armes et cetera" that was so disliked that he received death threats from nationalist groups and was placed under police protection. During one Marseilles concert, four hundred paratroopers turned up ready to lynch him. His backing group, “The Wailers” (Bob Marley’s accompanists), refused to go on. Gainsbourg went on stage alone and sang the Marseillaise unaccompanied. "Aux Armes et cetera" immediately shot to the top of the French charts.

...Anything but!

Not every French government has been so enthusiastic about their militaristic and xenophobic anthem. 

Napoleon (1800-1815) preferred a song called "Let's Look after the Health of the Empire".

The Bourbon kings (1815-30) chose "Où peut-on être mieux qu'au sein de sa famille" ("Where can we feel better than in our family?"). 

For Louis-Philippe (1830-1848) the national anthem was "La Parisienne" ("The Parisian") by Casimir Delvigne. The Second Republic's anthem was "Le Chant des Girondins" ("The Song of Girondists") by the famed writer Alexandre Dumas.

Napoleon III (1852-1870) chose "Partant pour la Syrie" ("Going to Syria"), written by Hortense de Beauharnais, Queen of the Netherlands and, incidentally, his mother.

The Free French Government liked to lead with “Le Chant des Partisans” (“The Song of the Fighters”) by André Montagnard.

The Marseillaise was finally made the official national anthem by the constitution of the Fourth Republic (Article 2 of the Constitution of 4 October 1958).

La Marseillaise

Arise children of the fatherland 

The day of glory has arrived 

Against us tyranny's 

Bloody standard is raised 

Listen to the sound in the fields 

The howling of these fearsome soldiers 

They are coming into your midst 

To cut the throats of your sons and your friends 


To arms, citizens! 

Form your battalions! 

March, march 

Let the impure blood (of our enemies) 

Soak the furrows (of our fields)


What do they want this horde of slaves 

Of traitors and conspiratorial kings? 

For whom these vile chains 

These long-prepared irons? 

Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage 

What methods must be taken? 

It is us they dare plan 

To return to the old slavery! 

What! These foreign cohorts! 

They would make laws in our courts! 

What! These mercenary phalanxes 

Would cut down our warrior sons 

Good Lord! By chained hands 

Our brow would yield under the yoke 

The vile despots would have themselves be 

The masters of destiny 

Tremble, tyrants and traitors 

The shame of all good men 

Tremble! Your parricidal schemes 

Will receive their just reward 

Against you we are all soldiers 

If they fall, our young heroes 

France will bear new ones 

Ready to fight against you

Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors 

Bear or hold back your blows 

Spare these sad victims 

That they regret taking up arms against us 

But not these bloody despots 

These accomplices of Bouillé 

All these tigers who mercilessly

Ripped out their mothers' wombs

We shall enter into the career 

When our elders will no longer be there 

There we shall find their ashes 

And the mark of their virtues 

We are much less jealous of surviving them 

Than of sharing their coffins 

We shall have the sublime pride 

Of avenging or joining them 

Drive on sacred patriotism 

Support our avenging arms 

Liberty, cherished liberty 

Join the struggle with your defenders 

Under our flags, let victory 

Hurry to your manly tone 

So that in death your enemies 

See your triumph and our glory! 


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