La Marseillaise: The French national anthem and its controversial lyrics

There has always been a debate surrounding the French National anthem, even amongst French people. This might sound surprising to foreigners, until they listen to the lyrics and translation. Let's find out why, shall we?
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There has always been a bit of debate as to whether the French National anthem should be taught in French schools. This might sound surprising to foreigners until you hear the lyrics and their translation.

In effect, you might say that Le Marseillaise, as the French national anthem is called, is perhaps the teeniest bit bloodthirsty.

Lyrics and Translation

The full hymne nationale (national anthem) is actually quite long, but the portion that most French people learn is just the first two verses.

French (short version)English translation
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)
Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!
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!
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!

It is clearly a war anthem, with an emphasis on killing. The blood running through the streets and all. And it raises a few questions:

  • How do you explain the lyrics to school children who learn it in school? Do you slap a PG-13 sign on it for 5-year-olds?
  • What exactly is “impure blood”? Do we actually want an answer to this, in the era of immigration and multiculturalism? And especially with the colonist history of France, this line remains the most problematic.
  • To cut the throats of “sons and women”? It is an odd turn of phrase, why not sons and daughters? Or men and women? Should we read more into this than what meets the eye?

And that is just the short version of the anthem.

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arc de triomphe with french flag
Arc de Triomphe with French flag

History & Background

The original song was written by a French poet and soldier Claude Rouget de Lisle, while he was stationed in Strasbourg, after France’s declaration of war on Austria in 1792.

It was the height of the French Revolution, and King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were awaiting trial and the guillotine. Her brother was the Emperor of Austria, who was looking to restore the French monarchy.

Lisle started composing what would first be known as ‘War song for the Rhine army”, before it became the Marseillaise. (The Rhine is a river that flows through French and German territory. )

We can debate if it is appropriate, but there’s a reason that the period just after the Revolution was known as Le Terreur (the terror). Lynch mobs, rapes, and violence were rampant and blood was running in the streets.

Given the context, the uncertainty, and the bloodshed, it is understandable that those passions would be reflected in the music of the time.

The song became known as Le Marseillais because it was in this period that Marseille was sending volunteers to Paris to defend their interests. Their battle cry en route to the capital was this song.

There’s no love lost between Paris and Marseille, so this makes even more sense. The poor Strasbourgois, unfortunately, lost out on the name fame. You can read more about French history here.

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Additional verses of the Hymne Nationale

If there was any doubt about the level of bloodthirstiness about the Hymne Nationale, it disappears when you read the rest of the lyrics.

French (additional verses)English translation
Que veut cette horde d’esclaves,
De traîtres, de rois conjurés?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés? (bis)
What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conspiring kings want?
For whom have these vile chains,
These irons, been long prepared? (repeat)
Français, pour nous, ah! quel outrage
Quels transports il doit exciter!
C’est nous qu’on ose méditer
De rendre à l’antique esclavage!

Aux armes, citoyens…
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
What furious action it must arouse!
It is to us they dare plan
A return to the old slavery!

To arms, citizens…
Quoi! des cohortes étrangères
Feraient la loi dans nos foyers!
Quoi! Ces phalanges mercenaires
Terrasseraient nos fiers guerriers! (bis)
What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors! (repeat)
Grand Dieu! Par des mains enchaînées
Nos fronts sous le joug se ploieraient
De vils despotes deviendraient
Les maîtres de nos destinées!

Aux armes, citoyens…
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke!
Vile despots would themselves become
The masters of our destinies!

To arms, citizens…
Tremblez, tyrans et vous perfides
L’opprobre de tous les partis,
Tremblez! vos projets parricides
Vont enfin recevoir leurs prix! (bis)
Tremble, tyrants and you traitors
The shame of all parties,
Tremble! Your parricidal schemes
Will finally receive their prize! (repeat)
Tout est soldat pour vous combattre,
S’ils tombent, nos jeunes héros,
La terre en produit de nouveaux,
Contre vous tout prêts à se battre!

Aux armes, citoyens…
Everyone is a soldier to combat you,
If they fall, our young heroes,
Will be produced anew from the ground,
Ready to fight against you!

To arms, citizens…
Français, en guerriers magnanimes,
Portez ou retenez vos coups!
Épargnez ces tristes victimes,
À regret s’armant contre nous. (bis)
Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors,
Bear or hold back your blows!
Spare those sorry victims,
For regretfully arming against us. (repeat)
Mais ces despotes sanguinaires,
Mais ces complices de Bouillé,
Tous ces tigres qui, sans pitié,
Déchirent le sein de leur mère!

Aux armes, citoyens…
But these bloodthirsty despots,
These accomplices of Bouillé,
All these tigers who mercilessly
Tear apart their mother’s chest!

To arms, citizens…
Amour sacré de la Patrie,
Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs
Liberté, Liberté chérie,
Combats avec tes défenseurs! (bis)
Sous nos drapeaux que la victoire
Accoure à tes mâles accents,
Que tes ennemis expirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire!

Aux armes, citoyens…
Sacred love of the Fatherland,
Lead, support our avenging arms
Liberty, cherished Liberty,
Fight with thy defenders! (repeat)
Under our flags may victory
Hurry to thy manly accents,
So that thy expiring enemies
See thy triumph and our glory!

To arms, citizens…
(Couplet des enfants)
Nous entrerons dans la carrière
Quand nos aînés n’y seront plus,
Nous y trouverons leur poussière
Et la trace de leurs vertus (bis)
Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre
Que de partager leur cercueil,
Nous aurons le sublime orgueil
De les venger ou de les suivre.

Aux armes, citoyens…
(Children’s Verse)
We shall enter the (military) career
When our elders are no longer there,
There we shall find their dust
And the trace of their virtues (repeat)
Much less keen to survive them
Than to share their coffins,
We shall have the sublime pride
To avenge or follow them.

To arms, citizens…

Alrighty then. To be fair, most French people stop at the short version and don’t even know the remaining lyrics.

Timeline of banishment and restoration

But the song was controversial, even in its day, and its lyrics, as well as its status, changed several times.

  • 14 July 1795: it becomes the French national anthem
  • 1804: Napoleon Bonaparte disliked the association with the Revolution since he fancied himself Emperor. He replaced it briefly with a song called Le Chant du Départ as the official French national anthem.
  • 1814 -1830: it was then banned outright under the Restoration of the French monarchy,
  • 1830: La Marseillaise was re-instated as the national anthem after the July Revolution of 1830 as the Bourbon Kings fought amongst themselves.
  • 1852 – 1870: The Bourbons are out and the Bonapartes are back. Under Napoleon III’s reign (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), the national anthem was “Partant pour la Syrie“, a song written by his mother, Hortense. Hortense also happened to be the step-daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • 1870 – 1940: Le Marseillaise is back as Napoleon III was been defeated by the Prussian army and France entered the Third Republic.
  • 1940 – 1944 : Under German occupation, Le Marseillaise was allowed, but only certain verses starting with the verse about “Sacred love of the Fatherland” in the long version of the anthem, since that echoed the German national anthem.
  • 1946 – La Marseillaise was restored in the aftermath of WWII.

These days La Marseillaise remains the National anthem of France, with a law passing in 2005 making it compulsory to learn in school and primary classes. So it is here to stay. If you have ever seen the Assemblée Nationale (the French House of Representatives) and the Presidential Palace at Elysées on TV, you have probably heard some version of it.

Some lyrics do remain a sensitive subject, however, with factions of the political far left and far right taking positions on patriotism vs xenophobia.


☞ READ MORE: History of the French Revolution and Protests in France

So what do you think, should the national anthem of France be changed to reflect our current society? Or is that considered too “woke”? If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more French poems here. A bientôt!

¹ Featured Image: Delacroix Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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