La Marseillaise as reactionary nationalism
Aux armes, citoyens!
I was looking at video on Twitter and sending responses with GIFs, as is my wont. (I’ve been told this makes me a dinosaur, or some other pejorative, and I don’t give a good goshdarn).
One of the GIFs I found was of Madeleine Lebeau concluding a stirring singing of the French national anthem with a cry of “Vive la France!” in this brilliant scene in Casablanca. If you don’t know it, here is a nice summary along with a link to the scene I found online.
The Marseillaise is widely understood as a revolutionary song, and revolutionaries the world over have adapted it to their own causes. But it has plenty of narrative meat for reactionaries. It was written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, an officer in the French army during the early period of the Revolutionary Wars, when the newly declared Republic fought against numerous neighboring monarchies who feared the exportation of the revolution.
The specific event that motivated its composition was the French declaration of war against Austria. But Rouget de Lisle was himself a royalist, and he did some time in prison during the final, most radical year of the Revolution (along with just about every sane person in France) before he was freed after the fall of Robespierre. The defense of France against foreign invasion was something even royalists and other enemies of the Revolution could get behind.
The lyrics (there are seven verses, but typically only the first is sung) are splendidly, ferociously nationalistic and populist:
Verse 1 and Refrain:
Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'étendard sanglant est levé ! (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens !
Formez vos bataillons !
Marchons ! Marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !
Verse 1 and Refrain English translation:
Let’s go children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny's
Bloody flag is raised! (repeat)
In the countryside, do you hear
The roaring of these fierce soldiers?
They come right into our arms
To slit the throats of our sons, our friends!
Grab your weapons, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let us march! Let us march!
May impure blood
Water our fields!
One of the most moving recent performances of La Marseillaise happened spontaneously in the Assemblée nationale, the French equivalent of the House of Representatives. This took place a week after the Islamist terrorist attack in January 2015 that left 12 people dead in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper that had published satirical material on Islam (as it had frequently done also on Judaism and Christianity).
The members of the National Assembly were called to a moment of silence in honor of the victims, but in short order, one of the deputies, Serge Grouard, began: “Allons enfants de la patrie…” By midway through the second line, the whole legislative body had joined him.
Grouard’s account of how it happened is quite gripping: “In the moment, things happen quickly, one doesn’t reflect. I heard Claude Bartolone evoke the flag and the Marseillaise in his speech. When the Assembly stood for the moment of silence, I felt much gravity, force…You feel it very strongly: this atmosphere full of restraint, force, and dignity. You feel it, you express it but you don’t reason it. So I started to sing. To be completely honest, I don't truly know why, it happened in a few seconds. It was not emotional, it comes from the guts.”
This profound display by some of France’s elected politicians notwithstanding, it is undoubtedly the case that many contemporary woke young French radicals are as horrified by the references here to “children of the fatherland” and “impure blood” of foreigners “water[ing] our fields” as they are by most any other expression of fierce attachment to national sovereignty and identity.
Here’s a personal example of the attitude. I can remember, on the occasion of one stay over there, getting into an argument with some very highly educated Parisian friends about American cultural imperialism. The position was put forward that there was too much American popular culture in France, especially in the form of terrible pop music, and more should be done by the French state to keep it out and protect space for French cultural production. The same individual who put forth that case went on to say how awful it was to go to French cinemas and see so many crap Hollywood films.
The response to this charge was vehement: How dare you speak so critically of American culture and so affirmatively of French culture!? Global popular culture is the future, American pop culture is the main thrust in that movement, and we should all embrace it. French culture is in any event too wedded to tradition and elitism, backward and nationalist.
You know who it was that was vigorously defending French culture against American imperialism? The only one present who was not a French citizen.
Oikophobia exists in France as well I see.