National plagiarism 2: plagiat national!

In a piece for the BBC this week, I wrote about the insane number of national anthems that seem to be plagiarised.

But I stupidly forgot to mention the biggest example of them all: la Marseillaise. The omission was all the more bizarre since I write about it in my book, so sorry about that!

Where did la Marseillaise’s music come from? Below is a piece by the Italian violinist, Giovan Battista Viotti written in 1781 – 11 years before Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote France’s anthem. You only have to listen to it for a moment to hear the resemblance.

Some people claim it wasn’t written by Viotti either, but by Jean-Baptiste Grisons in 1787. That I don’t understand since it’s six years later, but here’s his Oratorio d’Esther anyway.

Yes, it’s the same again.

Did Rouget steal one of these tunes? Here’s a quote from Frédéric Frank-David, former director of the Memorial de la Marseillaise, and the man who should know:

“There is a certain amount of probability that Rouget had been inspired by Viotti’s tune, be it consciously or unconsciously…”

So there you go!

But the problem I have with calling Rouget a plagiarist is it takes away from his achievement. Even if he stole it, “just choosing that melody – knowing that it was the one to inspire – there’s art in that too” (to narcissistically quote my own book!). There’s more art in that than most songs you can name, in fact.

Plus, the rest of Rouget de Lisle’s life was such a disaster, I think he should be given this one thing. Read my book for more on that. It’s a story that’s frankly unbelievable at times, but I promise I haven’t plagiarised it from any novel.

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!

Here’s looking at you, Rouget de Lisle

I should write something soon about Casablanca, a film that has France’s national anthem, la Marseillaise, running through it from the very first second.

But, until then, here’s a piece I recently recorded for the BBC on the secret – and somewhat naughty – life of Rouget de Lisle, the man who wrote the song.

If you’re in the UK, you can also listen to it on iPlayer until 2099 so no need to rush!

The picture at the top of this post is of Rouget’s statue in his beautiful hometown of Lons-le-Saunier (Instagrammed by @asmarshall). It was sculpted by Frédéric Bartholdi, the man who did the Statue of Liberty. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t get as many visitors as that does. Maybe the town should get it redone twenty times the size!

Drinking the Marseillaise

If you go to Lons-le-Saunier, the hometown of Rouget de Lisle, composer of the Marseillaise, you can buy a lot of merchandise.

There’s Marseillaise cakes, Marseillaise towels, replica Marseillaise manuscripts… But – getting to important matters – what’s the beer like?

Nice label, featuring not only Rouget de Lisle waving, but three French flags. “A heavy duty beer with a hint of coriander,” it says on the back. “Bottle fermented.”

Nice colour.

Let’s not comment on the taste.

Buy it from here!