It’s Bastille Day! Grab the pétanque set and sing the Marseillaise!

It’s France’s national day today. I would suggest you all storm the nearest prison in tribute to what happened in Paris on 14 July 1789, but why not sing the country’s amazing national anthem instead with the help of this video?

Sorry to anyone who’s seen it before. I made it last year while travelling across France.

It’s now somehow past 1,000 views (at least 10 of those by people other than my mum). At current  rates, it’ll hit a million views in 664 years, so if you haven’t watched it before, I suggest you do now. I mean, you wouldn’t want to miss out on cinematic history, would you?

Please rise for our polyglot anthem

International Herald Tribune op-ed pages

[I originally wrote this for the International Herald Tribune/NY Times, as the picture sort of shows. Feel free to read it on their website too]

Iraq’s politicians are set to reach agreement soon on an issue they have been arguing about for almost a decade: a new national anthem.

It may sound trivial, but Iraq has been searching for one ever since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003. The U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, selected the current song, “Mawtini” (My Homeland), after hearing it at a concert in 2004. But it was always meant to be a stopgap.

The reason it has taken so long is ethnicity. Any suggestions put forward over the years have soon collapsed over arguments about whether the author was Sunni, Shiite or Kurd, and what part he played in Saddam’s regime.

The proposed solution to these rows is a novel one. The main verse will be a poem by Iraq’s most famous writer, Muhammad al-Jawahiri — a choice no one can argue with. But the final words, “Long live Iraq,” will be sung in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and even Assyrian.

In effect, politicians have have decided to create a multinational anthem, hoping it will make everyone finally feel they belong to the “new Iraq.”

It might have the desired effect. I’ve spoken to several Kurds about it, from footballers to civil servants, and they all felt it was a positive move — a sign that they are being accepted (Kurds make up 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population).

What’s surprising to learn, though, is that South Africa may be the only other country that has a multilingual anthem. Its anthem features five languages and has been widely celebrated as helping bring the country together after apartheid.

Perhaps it’s time we had more anthems like this.

At first glance, this may appear to be a silly suggestion. In the United States, for example, more than 12 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home, but just try to add a few words of it to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The same goes for France, where no one would contemplate adding words in Arabic to the “Marseillaise,” despite the large North African populations.

But elsewhere the idea may not be so easily dismissed. Kosovo’s anthem has no words due to the sharp divide between Albanian and Serbian speakers. Having an anthem with both languages could be a way to foster a sense of national belonging.

A similar argument could be made in Belgium, where there are increasing calls for the Flemish-speaking region of Flanders and French-speaking region of Wallonia to part. The country’s anthem, the “Brabançonne,” can be sung in French, Flemish or German. Why not a new song featuring all three languages?

Changes like these are not necessary in countries where different ethnic groups speak the same or similar languages. Still, their anthems could also be rewritten to be more inclusive. Take Rwanda’s, “Beautiful Rwanda.” It talks about the “single language” joining the two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and Tutsi, who fought a vicious civil war in the 1990s. But it does not mention either by name. Would it not be better to spell out who people are, so everyone can identify themselves in the song, than hide the past?

A similar case could be made in Bosnia, where Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims are at loggerheads over words for a new anthem. Maybe an anthem change could even help improve Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain. The Spanish anthem, the “Marcha Real,” currently does not have any words, so at least they have a simple starting point.

Yes, there are practical issues with doing any of this. It would be difficult for many people to learn anthems in multiple languages, and it would be difficult to fit them all into a one-minute song, let alone a good one-minute song.

But if in five or 10 years’ time a new national identity is flourishing in Iraq and helping get a grip on its many problems, I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries start looking at the idea as one worth following.

Give blood: two words that could save the Marseillaise

The Marseillaise, the French national anthem, is hated by a lot of people in France because of one line:

Qu’un sang impur, abreuve nos sillons!

It means ‘let impure blood water our fields’ and it made sense about 200 years ago when the song was written. France was facing war with most of Europe, and wanted any invaders viciously killed.

But it makes much less sense now, especially given well over 10% of France’s population is an ethnic minority who don’t have fond memories of the country’s colonial past.

So, what to do about it? An answer came to me while donating blood this week, sitting there watching my blood pump into a bag (see the beautiful photo above). How about changing the line to this:

Qu’un sang, n’importe quel sang, en faire don à l’hôpital!

Ok, it doesn’t fit the tune and it’s probably appalling French (I’m trying to say, ‘Got blood, any blood, then donate it at the hospital’), but those problems aside, it might just work!

If you’ve got a better suggestion, let me know. And if you want to donate, you can find out where to do so here if you live in the UK, here if you live in France, and here if you’re in the States. If you live elsewhere, use Google!

The Marseillaise sung by the people of France!

What do you get when you convince 16 French people, four Belgian students and a bloke on a bike to sing the French national anthem?

The MOST AMAZING YOUTUBE CLIP EVER (to feature 16 French people, four Belgian students and a bloke on a bike singing the French national anthem)!

I recently made this last while cycling the historical route of the Marseillaise, from Marseille to Paris.

I was interviewing people about the song along the way, and it seemed fun to get them to sing too.

If you want to know the words, click through to the Youtube clip. They’re in English and French in the description box. And for a diary of my trip, including an explanation of why I did it, click here.

Merci, et désolé, à tous les participants!

Tuez le vélo (kill the bike)! Cycling the Marseillaise tour diary part II

I recently tried to cycle from Marseille to Paris, following the route 600 soldiers marched in 1792. Those soldiers spent the whole journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem. That’s why it’s today called the Marseillaise.

To find out why I’d do something so stupid, read part one here. Otherwise, join me about to leave the town of Avignon in south France.


It’s only 30 kilometres from Avignon to Orange, which is why I intended to cycle there in about an hour, passing through Châteauneuf-du-Pape along the way, the home of some of France’s most famous vineyards (that’s one of them being picked in the photo).

Unfortunately, to get there you have to enter the Rhone valley, home to the mistral, a wind that reaches 80km-an-hour.

You’d have to be an idiot to march into it; you’d have to an even bigger idiot to cycle into it. It’s good to know that the Marseillaise soldiers and I have something in common!

It was somewhere along this journey, probably when the wind was trying to blow me into a truck, that I tried singing the Marseillaise for the first time. ‘This will help me along,’ I thought. ‘It kept those soldiers going all the way to Paris.’

Unfortunately it didn’t, largely because I had to keep on staring at a piece of paper with the words on, and it’s pretty hard to do that when you’re trying to avoid cycling into grapepickers.

Plus, you get incredibly strange looks in France if you’re cycling along singing, “Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons”. I must have looked like a member of the Front National.

When I did eventually get to Orange, several hours later than expected, I immediately got a train to Valence, 100km north, in a effort to get away from that wind. It didn’t work, dammit.


The next day I decided to take a detour to the village of Hauterives. It has nothing to do with the Marseillaise, but is home to the Palais Idéal, an insane building carved by a postman in the 1880s. The place features elephants, camels, a mosque, a Hindu temple, giants…

The postman, Ferdinand Cheval, dreamt of visiting Asia and Africa all his life, but as he couldn’t, brought them to him.

The place is well worth a visit; inspiring as much as it is bizarre. The journey there was hell though, three hours into that damn wind, into rain, uphill…

I left Hauterives, decided I’d had enough of cycling for a while and promptly got a train to Lyon.


Go to Lyon and eat! The food’s amazing.

What else can I say about the place which I’m not saving for this book I’m meant to be writing? Er…don’t spend a day trying to ask its large immigrant community about the French national anthem; you’ll just get angry responses. But then asking French-Algerians ‘What do you think about the Marseillaise?’ is a bit like asking them, ‘Prove you’re French’, so that’s not much of a surprise.

Random men in cafes are far more likely to talk to you about the song. They’ll even sing it for you (you have my permission to click that link now)!


I would like to write that after Lyon, I got back on my bike and cycled 500km to Paris. I’d like to, but I got the train.

Would anyone have the guts to march that far today? I doubt it. I only met one person in France who said they would, and he was a hippy who said he’d do it to promote free love.

That guy also told me France should replace the Marseillaise with Edif Piaf’s La Vie en Rose (sample lyric: “Nights of love no longer finish”). “The Marseillaise is a war song,” he said, “but we’re not a war nation anymore; we’re a nation of love and sex.” He has a point.

On my final day in Paris, I got the train out to the suburbs and then cycled back in, ending up along the Champs-Élysées aiming at the Arc de Triomphe (see photo). I must have looked like the worst rider ever to enter the Tour de France as I creaked up that road, but I was happy to have got there.

If you’re ever thinking of cycling in France, remember to go north to south; it’ll save you a lot of pain!

Vive le vélo! Cycling the Marseillaise tour diary part I

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to cycle the route of the Marseillaise – 800 kilometres from Marseille to Paris.

In 1792, 600 soldiers marched the route to defend the French revolution. They bizarrely spent the whole, month-long journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem, which is why it’s called the Marseillaise.

Cycling their route seemed like a good idea since I’m writing a book on anthems. It stayed a good idea for – gosh – about three days!


This is what Marseille looks like when you walk out of the city’s train station, covered in oil having just tried to put a bike together. It’s pretty stunning.

But enough sights! My only real stop in Marseille was a trip to the Mémorial de la Marseillaise, a great museum dedicated to the anthem, slap bang on the road where the song was first sung.

There I met Frédéric Frank-David, the museum’s director, to learn about the marchers. They were recruited by the town’s mayor, who simply put a notice out for ‘men who can read, write and kill’, telling them they had to go north and stop the French king from taking power back from the people.

“Do you know they marched at night?” Frédéric said at one point. “I mean, you’d have to be an idiot to try it in the daytime, in this heat.” Ten minutes later, I left and cycled 40 kilometers up a hill. Frédéric was right.


When the soldiers arrived in Aix at 7am on their second day of marching, they demanded all the food and drink the town had to offer, got drunk and started a massive fight. Because of that, most of France started praying they didn’t turn up in their town.

I didn’t manage to start a fight in Aix – it’d be hard to, it’s a pleasant university town filled with cheese markets – but I did manage to get some girls in a bakery to sing me the Marseillaise.

They had to read the words first.


The route from Aix-en-Provence to Avignon is like entering a Disneyland version of France: all vineyards and orchards and lonely houses sitting at the end of tree-lined driveways.

Cycling through it made me realise just how unsurprising it is the soldiers left a huge impression on France. Imagine what it would have been like for people sleeping in those houses when one night 600 men marched past shouting the Marseillaise, flaming torches in hand.

It’d have been terrifying, like a Napoleonic version of The Wicker Man.

Most people in Provence wouldn’t have spoken French at the time, so wouldn’t have even known what the soldiers were singing about. Although that was probably for the best given the bloodthirsty lyrics.

What else did I learn on the way to Avignon? That if a road looks too good to be true, chances are it is, it’s a motorway.

Avignon is a nice stop for a day, the former home of the Popes (they lived here after a Frenchman was elected Pope and refused to move to Rome). The picture above was taken in the papal palace.

Today, the town’s filled with German exchange students getting drunk in vodka bars. I’m sure the Catholic church would approve!

Part II of this diary, where everything goes wrong, is here!

Cycling the Marseillaise

In 1792, 600 soldiers marched 500 miles from Marseille to Paris. For the entire journey – one longhot month – they sung the French national anthem.

That singing explains why the song’s today called the Marseillaise. It probably also explains why when they got to Paris they immediately stormed the royal palace and killed nearly everyone inside. If I’d just spent a month singing the same song over and over, I’d have wanted to kill someone too!

Next week, I’m going to be cycling their footsteps. I expect I’ll only sing the Marseillaise once a day, but if you shortly read about an Englishman being arrested for storming the French National Assembly, you’ll know what’s happened!

I may post updates on Instagram (@asmarshall) but as they’ll probably just be photos of my bloody knees after a horrific crash, maybe not…