La Marseillaise: has France’s controversial anthem finally hit the right note?

This week’s poignant renditions may finally allow the martial song to shed its troubled past and become a rallying cry for solidarity and hope

[The below piece originally appeared in an abridged form in The Guardian]

Flag Wembley

The Marseillaise has always been one of the world’s most contested songs. Within weeks of it being written in 1792, its composer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was thrown in prison suspected of being a royalist, a move that almost took the anthem down with him (he only escaped the guillotine by writing another song about Louis XVI having his head chopped off).

It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.

A few years after that, Napoleon disowned it completely, both because he had seen its power and did not want it inspiring a revolution against him, and, slightly more prosaically, because he hated its composer who had probably had an affair with his wife.

It had a brief recovery in 1830 after the then king, Charles X, was overthrown in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ uprising, but soon it sunk back into disrepute – a song you would only sing if you were old-fashioned and did not realise musical times had changed.

It did not really regain its initial meaning of defiance and unity – of a nation confronting “tyranny’s bloody banner”, to quote the first verse – until the First World War when it became a rallying cry once more. Back then, Rouget de Lisle’s remains were even paraded through the streets of Paris in an effort to inspire, ironically ending up in Invalides, the home of the French military, just yards from Napoleon’s tomb.

The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the Second World War (it was sung by the resistance having obviously been banned by the Vichy government). Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, its chorus’s cry of “To arms, citizens” turning out to be just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been soldiers.

But since then, there is no denying that it has just become awkward, especially because of how often it was sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’s use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cetera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek tells you more the real direction where things were heading.

If you want to understand the full extent of how controversial it became, you only have to look to football. In 2001, French-Algerians booed it in the first-ever match between the two countries. In 2002, Corsicans booed it at a cup final so loudly that the then president Jacques Chirac stormed out and the match was only allowed to restart after he calmed down. The booing has not really stopped since.

A couple of years ago, I spent a fortnight in France researching the anthem for a book I was writing about the history of these songs. I asked dozens of people what they thought of the Marseillaise, and that controversy – that uncomfortableness – was surprisingly what came through most. Everyone said they liked the music, of course – who couldn’t fall for a melody as stirring as that, one which has grabbed everyone from Tchaikovsky to Debussy? – but the words? That was a different matter. Everyone from teenagers to old women would bring up the chorus and its climax: “Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” They all knew when it’d been originally written, but they also knew it had been hijacked by both its colonial legacy and by the far-right – Le Pen’s National Front – people who seemed to hear the words “sang impur” – “impure blood” – and take it as referring to the country’s immigrants.

I got the strongest reactions from the French-Algerians and French-Tunisians I met. Most could only bring themselves to give the most dismissive answers when I asked them what they thought of the song. “It’s the national anthem,” they would say with a curt laugh, and that was it, no matter how many follow up questions I tried. “Why would you even ask me about that?”

I would point out all anthems are deep down like this, songs written at times of war with their meanings changing over time – Algeria’s at one point says, “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand” – but it did not change their views.

You could see that awkwardness even after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. In January, the Marseillaise was sung by France’s politicians just like it was this week, but when they got to the chorus, they seemed to look at each other as if to say, “Are you sure we should be singing this?”

But today, now, something has changed. This moment somehow seems different. As the anthem has been sung around the world, played so much it is almost inescapable, it is as if all those past associations have disappeared, as if the song is being reinvented and reclaimed before is. It is like everyone, in France as much as outside it, is once again seeing it for how it was originally written.

You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this time to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. Tonight at Wembley everyone will sing too, with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity (you can’t not have fun while singing the Marseillaise). And it’s because of that this moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny both within its own borders and without.

The Marseillaise could one again become an example to all countries of the importance anthems can have, of being able to inspire people to act in extraordinary ways, something remarkably few anthems achieve (could you imagine people turning to God Save the Queen in a similar moment here?).

But I admit this feeling could only be fleeting. How the Marseillaise will be viewed in a month, six month’s, a year’s time will be entirely dependent on whether French politicians see this as a moment to unite or whether they clampdown on the country’s Muslim population in a way that will only be further divisive. If they do the latter, the Marseillaise will revert to being a contested symbol, one for the far-right only and no one else. You could soon find the Marseillaise being booed again, its current status as an icon of global unity gone in an instant, and everyone who sings it tonight wondering what on earth went wrong. That may fit the song’s history, but it shouldn’t – mustn’t – happen.

[Apologies for that being quite heavy reading. I did a far more to-the-point and celebratory piece for the BBC here. I suggest you read that too even if I clearly wrote it too quickly as there’s far too many ‘but’s!]

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