The Marseillaise: The French National Anthem

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This is a big weekend for France. Their national holiday is the 14thof July: a day filled with parades, festivities, and national pride. But this year, for many people, their national pride might be tied more to what happens the next day. On Sunday, the 15th, France will be playing in the finals for the World Cup.

I don’t follow sports very much, and there may be others of you in the same boat, so here’s a little explanation: European football is played in the World Cup – in the US this game is often called soccer.

The past few days, I’ve noticed quite a bit of traffic on my website from people looking to find out why the French team has a rooster as their emblem. You can find the answer to that here. But today, I thought I would explore the French national anthem which you will hear at all national celebrations – and at the beginning of the game on Sunday.

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A Revolutionary Anthem

France’s rousing national anthem, the Marseillaise, was written during the French Revolution. In 1792 the Revolution was in full swing, and all the monarchies of Europe were nervous. It made them uneasy to see people rise up against a king, and it was in their best interest to put a stop to all that revolutionary ruckus lest their own subjects decide to do away with them too.

Austria, Marie Antoinette’s homeland, was threatening to invade France. So, France beat them to the punch and declared war on them.On 25 April 1792, news of the declaration of war reached Strasbourg. The mayor held a banquet for the troops stationed there who would soon be marching off to fight. Patriotic fervor filled the room as the soldiers and officers celebrated the victories they were sure would be theirs.

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Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle

Among the banqueting soldiers was Captain Rouget de Lisle, a thirty-two-year-old military engineer from eastern France. The mayor knew that Rouget de Lisle wrote songs and poems, so he asked him to write a song that would stir the hearts of the soldiers and inspire them as they went into battle.

He thought the French Revolution needed a more rousing anthem than the current one. They had been revolting to a song called Ça ira, ça ira (It Will Be Fine, It Will Be Fine). This barely optimistic song title had been inspired by Benjamin Franklin when he was ambassador to France during the American Revolution. Whenever anyone would ask Ben about the progress of the American War of Independence he would answer, “Ça ira, ça ira.”

So, Rouget de Lisle was given a formidable task. He should write a song that would stir up patriotism and enthusiasm in the hearts of the soldiers and the people of France – and lead their nation into victory. That’s all. And it would be really great if he could do it that very night.

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Words and Music

It was quite a responsibility, and Rouget de Lisle must have left the party murmuring, “Oh la la! ‘Ow iz it possible? ‘Ow will I find ze words? And ze music?” His head was spinning as he started for home – then he noticed a poster on the side of a building: It said “Take up your arms, citizens! Form your battalions!”

“Hmm,” Rouget de Lisle thought, “That’s not bad. Maybe I can use that.” He grabbed his notebook and pencil and jotted it down. As he walked on, he saw more posters and they all had patriotic slogans on them. He went all over town looking for posters and copying down their messages. Many of those poster slogans ended up in the song lyrics he wrote that night.

As for the music…  well, he was probably inspired by other tunes that he had heard. There are several claims that the French national anthem sounds a lot like other songs, but there weren’t any copyright laws then and borrowing tunes was an accepted practice. After all, the American anthem borrowed music from a British pub tune, and the British anthem may have been written for a French king.

At the end of the day, the important thing is that by morning, Captain Rouget de Lisle had put together a stirring song. Its original title was Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Rhine Army). It was a rousing tune and the mayor himself sang it the following evening when it was presented to the officers.

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Why is It Called the Marseillaise?

The song was written in Strasbourg, but the soldiers there might not have had sufficient time to learn it before marching off into battle. However, a few months later, down in Marseille in the south of France, a singer performed the song and it aroused such patriotism that the National Guard of Marseille adopted it as their marching song.

When a group of volunteers from Marseille set out for Paris, they marched to this song all through France. It stirred everyone who heard it, and all along the way men were moved to join the army. When the Marseille troops arrived in Paris they were still singing War Song for the Rhine Army at the top of their lungs. Since that title was way too long, the song became known as La Marseillaise after the troops that brought it to Paris.

National Anthem

The French National Convention adopted it as the New Republic’s anthem on July 14, 1795. But when Napoleon became emperor in 1804, he did away with it – he didn’t want to encourage any revolution where he might end up like the former King did.

Then, the Third Republic came along, and in 1879 the Marseillaise was reinstated as the French national anthem. Throughout the years there has been a lot of controversy around the song. It was, after all, a song written to spur on a revolution so some of the words can be a bit violent. But it has stood the test of time and will probably be around for quite a while yet to come.

So, if you are watching the World Cup final this weekend, think of Rouget de Lisle when you hear the Marseillaise being played. Allez les Bleus! (Go Blues!)

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You might also like these articles:
— Gallic Rooster – Find out why a rooster represents France
God Save the Royal Derriere – Is the British national anthem French?

If you would like to sing along, here are the words in French and English:

French
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 vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

English
Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!

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The French National Anthem
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Margo Lestz

I am a perpetual student who enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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6 comments

  1. Wonderful Margo. So interesting and a great story for one of the most rousing national anthems. ‘Advance Australia Fair’, which replaced ‘God Save the Queen’ in Australia in 1984 is very placid by comparison. By the way, in Australia we call European Football ‘Soccer’ like Americans, however ‘football’ in Australia is also different from (‘than’ in American English) American football! We supposedly speak the same language!
    Best wishes
    Paula

    1. Thanks, Paula. My birthday is on the 4th of July (American Independence day) so I was always very patriotic and the American national anthem would bring a tear to my eye. The music was so moving that I was sure it had been inspired by a higher power. Then I found out that it was an old British pub tune! The pub tune was more lively, but it was the same music. My patriotic bubble burst! 🙂

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