La Marseillaise unites nations
BSSB.BE theguardian.com/ 23.11.2015
The Marseillaise is one of the world’s most contested songs. It was written as a call to arms to inspire people against an Austrian invasion – hence the chorus: “To arms, citizens … Let’s water the fields with impure blood.” But the interpretation of the lyrics quickly changed, and it would latterly be seen as dangerously anti-establishment and, paradoxically, a tool of the elite.
The Marseillaise meant everything to the French again during the second world war, when it was sung by the resistance, having been banned by the Vichy government. Afterwards it somehow kept that vitality, becoming a rallying cry to rebuild the devastated country, with “To arms, citizens” proving just as useful in motivating bricklayers as it had been in galvanising soldiers.
But since then, there is no denying that the song has become uncomfortable. It was often sung during France’s occupation of Algeria and its brutal, eight-year-long war of independence. The Beatles’ use of it in All You Need is Love and Serge Gainsbourg’s brilliant reggae cover – the hilarious Aux Armes et cætera – gave it a brief respite from that image, even for a few years making the anthem cool, but the fact that French nationalists tried to beat up Gainsbourg for his cheek says a lot about its political associations.
Now, something has changed. As the anthem is sung around the world in solidarity, the song is being reinvented once again.
You only have to look at the French parliament’s rendition of the anthem this week to see that. The volume never dropped; the words were never anything but punched out. On Tuesday evening at Wembley it will be sung with joy and fun as much as respect and solidarity. This moment marks a genuine chance to take the song back from the far-right and make it a symbol of France today, united and defiant, combating tyranny within its own borders and without.