All About La Marseillaise, the Turbulent French National Anthem

You’ve probably heard the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, before, even if you’re not a French speaker or student. You may have come across it during sports matches or cultural documentaries, or even in the intro to one of the Beatles’ most famous songs.

The lyrics of the Marseillaise don’t really go with a tune called “All You Need is Love.” So, what’s the story?  Allons, enfants, let’s look at when and why the Marseillaise was written, and how it’s been used (and banned) throughout history.

Who wrote the Marseillaise – and why?

Imagine that your whole world has changed. A despotic ruling class is in the process of being overturned, and the dream of equality for all is so close to coming true. But invaders from across the borders have come to change that dream, afraid that it might set an example for their own people to revolt.  A friend asks you to find a way to rally the troops, to make them keep fighting.  What do you do?

If you’re a soldier with a talent for songwriting, you create a stirring battle song.

This is what happened in Strasbourg in 1792. Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a captain the French army, answered his friend the mayor of Strasbourg’s call for a rallying song for the local troops as they battled the Prussian and Austrian armies. The enemy was trying to put down the French Revolution and restore the monarchy.

Interestingly, Rouget De Lisle was probably inspired by posters that had been put up around the city, bearing phrases like “Aux armes citoyens, l’étendard de la guerre est déployé,” (To arms, citizens, the banner of war has been unfurled”). 

Like a hip-hop artist finding the perfect sample, he incorporated lines like this into his own original words. The same can be said for the music, which was very likely inspired by various popular opera and classical compositions.

The original title of Rouget de Lisle’s song was “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Army of the Rhine”). The Rhine is nowhere near the southern French city of Marseilles, so how did the song end up getting its famous name?

Well, it traveled, as catchy tunes do, although that’s a bit more impressive when you consider that there were no internet, MP3’s, DVD’s, tapes, or even records at the time. It made it all the way to the south of France – and then, back north: One day, troops from Marseilles came to Paris, to help Revolutionary fighters there. As they marched through the streets of the capitol, they sang the catchy song, which the Parisians came to associate with them, and call “La Marseillaise”. 

What are the lyrics of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise?

Rouget de Lisle wrote fifteen verses of La Marseillaise, but today only six, plus a seventh, later addition, are officially recognized. Some of the original verses were omitted once officials got involved, since they were considered too violent…even on the eve of the Terror.

However, most of the time when we hear La Marseillaise sung, it’s only the first verse. This is the case with most national anthems, in fact – otherwise, think of how long it would take to kick off state ceremonies or sporting events.

Here are the lyrics of La Marseillaise that most of us (including French people) know, with a line-by-line English translation:

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!

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!

* Note that some versions of La Marseillaise use vos (your) instead of nos (our). The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs’ website opts for the nos version.

You can find the additional five verses of La Marseillaise and their English translations here

Even if you have a fairly advanced level of French, you may have still had trouble understanding some of the lines of the Marseillaise. If that’s the case, don’t worry. Don’t forget that they’re song lyrics, so certain poetic devices like inversion are at play. There are also vocabulary choices that you may not be familiar with. These may have been chosen to match with the rhythm of the song, fit in with the rhyme scheme and meter, or simply because they were more commonly used back in 1792.

When did La Marseillaise become the French national anthem?

La Marseillaise was sung throughout the subsequent, tumultuous years of the Revolution. On July 14, 1795, it was officially declared the national anthem of France.

Why did this song get such an honor?  In addition to its popularity and presence, it is, of course, a rallying cry. Although times were already different than when Rouget de Lisle wrote it a few years before, the French knew that they would still have to fight for their rights in one way or another, and in fact, they were correct.

We tend to think of the French Revolution of 1789-1799 as the only one. But students of French history and/or Les Mis fans probably know that’s not the whole story. This was the first revolution, the one when the basic ruling structure of France changed in an incredible way. But it was also the start of a near-century of other revolutions, large and small.

From 1789 to the present, the French government has changed approximately fourteen times. I don’t mean that new leaders were elected; entire empires rose and fell, kings were appointed and deposed, republics were proclaimed and rejected.

Some French governments embraced the Marseillaise, while others outright banned it. For instance, it was forbidden to sing the Marseillaise from the time Napoleon Bonaparte took power in 1804, through different elected monarchs, until the Revolution of 1830 (the one you may know from Les Misérables and Delacroix’s famous painting “Liberty Leading the People”).  Then, the song was quickly banned again under Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, who reigned as Emperor from 1850 to 1870.

The Marseillaise was officially reinstated as the French national anthem in 1879. It was only forbidden again under the Vichy regime and Occupation in World War II, and promptly reinstated after the war.

La Marseillaise’s history as the French national anthem is tumultuous, just like the history of France for many decades after the Revolution that inspired the song in the first place. 

Why is La Marseillaise the French national anthem?

Sure, La Marseillaise’s bloody battle cry fit the spirit of the time in which it was written. But why has it remained the national anthem of France? 

Although modern-day French people don’t focus on the violence of the lyrics, La Marseillaise’s rallying aspect actually does make you feel patriotic. And there are always things for the French (or any nation) to fight for, of course. Some would say that the Marseillaise song reminds the people not to give up their rights and to remember their ancestors’ struggle for liberté, égalité, fraternité. But La Marseillaise could also represent taking a stand against contemporary issues like globalization and terrorism.

The latter was especially apparent after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in and around Paris. The song became a way for people around the world to show their support for France.

For me, the most moving example of this may be the football (soccer) match between usually bitter rivals France and England that occurred a few days after the attack, at Wembley Stadium. The English team and supporters scrambled to learn the lyrics to La Marseillaise , which they sang alongside French players and fans.  

Is La Marseillaise controversial?

The eras when it was banned aside, La Marseillaise is generally well-accepted by the French. Still, like just about any national symbol, it has experienced, and probably will continue to experience, some controversies.

For one thing, some French football (soccer) players have been criticized for not singing along to the anthem at the start of matches. It’s far from the extremely demonstrative act of certain US athletes refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner”, but it has raised the ire of conservative French people and politicians.

On the other side of things, there are many occasions when supporters of the opposing team have whistled (an equivalent of booing) La Marseillaise while it was played before football matches. The whistling has sometimes been considered a sign of disrespect or hate towards France, and at other times hate against specific players or the race of players. 

You could say that another controversy that often comes up around the Marseillaise has to do with reconciling its origins to the present day.  Its most surprising detractor for this reason was probably former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who felt that the song’s fast military cadence should be slowed to reflect a dignified national anthem. But though the official version of the song was played at a slower tempo during his years in office, it was quickly changed back when he left. People just like a faster paced, more passionate Marseillaise.

A bigger issue is the problem many people have with the song’s lyrics. Some protest their violence, while others think that certain lines and phrases, like un sang impur (impure blood), are xenophobic or racist.

That said, these groups are very much a minority; most of the French population knows and accepts La Marseillaise as it was written.  Because they’ve heard it so often and because it’s associated with specific events, rather than its lyrics or rhythm, the violence and potential xenophobia/racism in its lyrics aren’t really paid attention to. 

As the French national anthem, La Marseillaise is a symbol of France itself. This means that singing it can be used for good – for example in the cases of people around the world intoningitafter the November 2015 terrorist attacks. But the song can also be seen as a symbol of “the establishment” or a representation of things that are wrong with the country.

In 1979, Serge Gainsbourg released Aux armes et cætera (“To arms, etc.”), a deliberately relaxed version of La Marseillaise, set to a reggae beat. You could say it was simply in keeping with Gainsbourg’s rebellious rocker, “too cool for school” vibe. But some interpreted this “reggae Marseillaise performed by a debauched, diminutive French Jew and backed by a bunch of Afro-Caribbean [R]astas” as an appropriation of the anthem by minorities who had previously been overlooked or discriminated against. Or maybe it was just a way of saying “Big deal!” about the pomposity of the national anthem. Or maybe it was both.

The relaxed new style of music, the racial implications, and the careless-seeming shortening of the refrain with “et caetera” enraged right wing French conservatives, and even earned Gainsbourg death threats and concerts invaded by furious soldiers. On the other hand, the song soared to the top of the charts, introduced reggae to the mainstream French population, and was embraced by punks and other rebels.

Interestingly, Rouget de Lisle’s pages of La Marseillaise actually do show the refrain written “Aux armes et caetera” – after all, it would take a long time to handwrite the refrain again and again. This was a fact pointed out by Gainsbourg himself, when he purchased one of the original manuscripts at auction in 1981.

Today, Gainsbourg’s song doesn’t pack quite as strong a controversial punch, but it remains a classic and a part of French music history.  Still, the traditional Marseillaise seems like it’s probably here to stay.

What are some versions of La Marseillaise?

There are more than six hundred versions of La Marseillaise.

This short film shows the musical evolution of the song, from an operetta-inspired air (although this source of inspiration has been contested), to the many different cadences and styles it’s taken on over the years – well, at least from a traditional, government-sanctioned standpoint (no “Aux armes et caetera” here).

This is the current official musical version of La Marseillaise, posted on the French government’s website.

What’s the best version of La Marseillaise? That’s for you to decide! Since so many people have sung it or incorporated it into their songs (including the Beatles, who use its opening notes at the beginning of “All You Need Is Love” ), an online search for an artist you like and “La Marseillaise” may surprise you. Among others, Placido Domingo, Mireille Mathieu, Django Reinhardt (with violinist Stéphane Grappelli) , and Jessye Norman have given their voices (or, in Reinhardt’s case, composition and guitar strumming skills) to the song.

Even people unfamiliar with French culture may have heard La Marseillaise in an iconic scene in the classic movie “Casablanca”, where refugees sing it together to drown out German bar patrons’ rendition of their own war song, Die Wacht am Rhein.                                                                                                                                                  Whatever version(s) of La Marseillaise you prefer, it (or at least the original it’s based on) remains one of the most recognizable and stirring national anthems in the world. The BBC went so far as to dub it “the greatest national anthem in the world, ever”, explaining why in an entertaining and moving video.

Although it’s not without its controversies, ultimately La Marseillaise is about standing up and fighting for freedom. That universally powerful message makes the song at once an iconic national anthem, and a rally cry for us all.

Whether you already knew the lyricsor you’ve just read them for the first time in this article, why not get into the spirit and try to sing along?

Photo credits: Photo 1 by Jossuha Théophile on Unsplash; Photo 2 by Alysa Salzberg; Photo 3 by Pierre Herman on Unsplash ; Photo 4 by Alice Triquet on Unsplash

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.