Le Marseillaise

Le Marseillaise is the national anthem of France. It was named after the city of Marseille, which sits on the southern coast of France on the Mediterranean, and which has never been the capital city. I wondered how this came about.

Le Marseillaise was written and composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792 and was originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (War Song for the Army of the Rhine). It was penned at a time when France was under attack by Prussia and Austria. Although the song was originally dedicated to Marshal Nicolas Luckner, a Bavarian in French service, the melody soon became a rallying call for the French Revolution. It became known as La Marseillaise after it was sung on the streets of Paris by volunteers from Marseille.

Following the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the French Revolution in 1792, and the decapitation of King Louis XVI and his bride Marie Antoinette in 1793, monarchies across Europe were understandably worried. If the French principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) spread, this would be bad news for nobles all across Europe. Partly out of fear, but also sensing an opportunity take advantage of apparent French disorganization, Britain, Spain, The Netherlands, Austria, Piedmont, and Prussia all battled France at the same time.

The battled-hardened French Revolutionaries welcomed the fight, and saw it as an opportunity to spread their revolutionary principles and to liberate the rest of Europe. The French soldiers were citizens motivated by principle and fared well against the apathetic armies of the other European nations, but they lacked the leadership necessary to wage large scale war (a gap which would soon be filled by Napoleon).

The French National Convention adopted Le Marseillaise as the Republic’s anthem in 1795, making it France’s first anthem. Although it lost this status temporarily under Napoleon and subsequent leaders, in 1879 it was restored as France’s national anthem and has remained so ever since.

There is a movement afoot to soften the words of Le Marseillaise, saying that perhaps it is not becoming for a modern nation such as France. It is shocking to think these words are taught to and sung by French children today, but one must remember when and under what conditions it was written and how it became significant.

Here are the words, translated into English, of the first verse and chorus most often sung.

Let’s go, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us of tyranny
The bloody banner is raised (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They are coming nearly into our arms,
To cut the throats of our sons and women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, Let’s march!
That an impure blood
Waters our furrows!

I find it very interesting that this battle cry, intended to anger and rally French revolutionaries over 200 year ago, has survived as their national anthem today. If I was 6-year-old Jacques, learning the words for the first time, I might be worried that they were coming to slit my throat, or perhaps whether French produce was contaminated. For a nation that many Americans regularly criticize as being ‘yella’, they sure have a kick-ass national anthem.

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