Today there will be an election that is critically important to the future of Europe. France, which has been from the beginning one of the two most important parts of the European Union, will be electing a new leader, with the choice being between one who is a classic more of the same type, and the other being one who wants to change just about everything of the status quo. This is proving to be a bitter race between Emmanuel Macron, ENA-educated former banker and Socialist, and Marine Le Pen, always incorrectly referred to as being from the hard right, who wants France to be free of the yoke of the European Union. We will know on Sunday.
No matter who wins, rousing choruses of what has been called “the greatest national anthem” in existence will be sung all over France, and that is “The Marseillaise.”
Known originally as “The War Song for the Army of the Rhine,” the song was composed and first sung in the early spring of 1792 in Strasbourg, in the very north of France, and an area embodying a uniquely European story. Strasbourg was part of Germany for various parts of its history, and the Teutonic influences are and have been ever present. At this particular point in history, it was very French, as war had been declared by the ostensible leaders in France against Austria and Prussia. Members of the elite French “National Guard” were mobilized in the Strasbourg area, and it seemed like things between the French and Germans were coming to a head. The mayor of Strasbourg was a fervent patriot, as well as being “a competent musician.” A young Captain in the French Army Corps of Engineers, who was also a talented musician, was invited to the Mayor’s home on a particular night in April of that year to “participate in the music.” This individual, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a native of the Franche-Comte, was also somewhat of a poet, and when the Mayor made the executive decision to order the creation of a patriotic song for what he found to be a momentous time in French history, he selected Monsieur de Lisle to do the honors, and ordered that it be completed and ready for singing that evening.
It was later said of the Captain/composer: “DeLisle’s was a happy choice. Not quite thirty-two years old, energetic and enthusiastic, he was deeply patriotic and a loyal subject of the King…he set to work on the song, probably inspired by other works in the same idiom, and gradually it took shape, both music and verse. “
The song was a great success.
By July of 1792, the song had been published in Paris, containing both lyrics and melody, though without the name of the composer. By August, it had found its way to Marseilles, in the very south of France, and a hotbed of revolutionary fervor, where “it found immediate success.” There was already a plan for a huge march of “revolutionaries” from Marseilles to Paris, in effect to confront the King, and “with that song on their lips” the sans-culottes “marched across France.” Here is what happened when they came to Paris:
“They arrived in Paris in late July and, on the morning of August 10th, headed for the Tuileries. The King and Queen took refuge with the Parliament, and that same night the Swiss Guards (of the Royal Family) were massacred on the steps of the palace.”
Meanwhile, the song which the “Marseillais had brought with them” made an “immediate impact on the people of Paris.”
This was the march from Marseilles: the song became known as ‘La Marseillaise.’
At this point in the mess that was the French Revolution, people were confused as to quite where loyalties should lie, among them de Lisle’s mother, who wrote to her son: “What is this revolutionary hymn, which is sung by a group of bandits on their way across France with which your name is associated?” It quickly became known, though, that those who comprised this mob that made this trek with this song on their lips, were in large part neither French nor from Marseilles. “They were a collection of foreign vagabonds, the dregs of all nations: Genoese, Corsicans and Greeks.” According to the same source, an official of “The Terror,” (which was a particularly gruesome period of the Revolutionary epoch), continued: “By what strange distortion of fact, they have come to be pictured as a liberty-loving band of romantic volunteers gaily singing the song that they appropriated to their name, it is difficult to imagine.”
Here is an eyewitness account of the first devotees of the Marseillaise:
“These hideous confederates belched up from Marseilles, arrived in Paris. I do not think it would be possible to imagine anything more frightful than these five hundred madmen, most of them drunk, wearing red caps and with their arms bare, followed by the dregs of the people from the Faubourgs St. Antoine and St. Marceau, fraternizing in tavern after tavern with bands as fearful as the one they formed. Thus they proceeded in ‘farandoles’ (a kind of dance) through the principal streets, where the orgy to which they had been bidden…was preceded by dances which were satanic.”
Despite the lugubriousness of its original proponents, the song caught on with the “whole French army, and indeed the entire nation,” and was so sought after as an inspirational factor at that time in public and military forums, that the music was hand copied and distributed through musical circles, where it soon “penetrated into the repertory of the military bands attached to the various united of the National Guard.”
It was the memorable day of September 20, 1792, at Valmy, which was a significant victory for the French, that the French troops’ brave General Kellermann rode out in front of his men: “then, raising his hat on high at the tip of his sword, he called Vive la Nation!” It was at that moment that the spontaneous response of the “Marseillaise” burst forth, “sung by the whole army, played by all the bands and accompanied by the roll of the drums.”
Thus a great national anthem was born.
It was also at that moment that Goethe, the great German philosopher, who was observing the battle from the German side, and was “deeply impressed by the proud bearing of the French troops,” said “In this place, and on this day, a new era in the history of the World has begun.”
It is thought that one of the main reasons for its enduring popularity is that “La Marseillaise” “not an aristocratic song, it is about the people. It’s about being a citizen.” Despite its bloodthirsty lyrics, e.g., “l’entendard sanglant est leve” “the bloody standard has risen; “ “mugir ces feroces soldats,” “the roar of those ferocious soldiers;” and “egorger nos fils, nos compagnes,” “to cut the throats of your sons, your women,” the song grew in acclaim.
Even Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the President of France from 1974 to 1981, made the effort to slow “the rhythm because he considered it too warlike.” Despite these and other objections to various aspects of the song, the ‘Marseillaise’ has sustained its immense popularity and was declared the “national song of France” on July 14, 1795. All six verses of the original song remained practically unchanged, though a seventh was added in later years. Though “The Marseillaise“ lost “its status under Napoleon I and was suppressed during the Bourbon restoration,” it became France’s National Anthem on February 14, 1879, the time of France’s third republic:
Aux armes, citoyens, (To arms, citizens)
Formez vos bataillons, (Form your battalions)
Marchons, Marchons, (Let’s march, Let’s march)
Qu’un sang impur, (Let an impure blood)
Abreuve nos sillons, (Water our furrows) (Repeat)
Vive La France!
Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.