The Marseillaise, the late eighteenth-century revolutionariesā€™ march that became the French national anthem, has a big, affecting, gorgeous melody that sounds like a flag waved furiously over battle; like any effective symbol, it overrides the particulars. For example, listening to English and French soccer fans hum along to it together in solidarity at a football match over the weekend, you could forget what the song actually says. Translated, the second half of the first verse is something like:

Do you hear, in the country/ The roar of those ferocious soldiers

Theyā€™re coming right into your arms/ To cut the throat of your sons, your women!

Sung now, after Paris, that song refers to different soldiers. But in 1792, the ā€œtheyā€ there meant the Austrians, and according to a fascinating post in the London Review of Books, the most bloodthirsty line in the anthem, which comes in the chorus, actually comes from a poem that refers to the Englishā€”who had slaughtered a French colonial regiment in 1754. The chorus says, translated:

To arms, citizens/ Form your battalions

Letā€™s march, letā€™s march/ Let an impure blood water our furrows

That line about ā€œimpure blood,ā€ meant for the English and redirected towards the Austrians, is almost overwhelmingly flexible when you imagine it in the mouth of someone like Lassana Diarra, a Paris-born African Muslim who plays on the French soccer team, who in 2014 was accused of joining ISIS and whose cousin was killed in Fridayā€™s attacks. He got a standing ovation in Wembley Stadium on Saturday. The LRB has a fuller account of the night, which ends with a real punch:

By the time England had won 2-0, news was filtering in of a scare at a stadium in Germany. But the distance between the composition of the ā€˜Marseillaiseā€™ and the way it was performed tonight seemed like a promise that intractable hatreds can come to an end. Or perhaps they are only redirected. During the Second Empire, Napoleon III banned the ā€˜Marseillaiseā€™. The song that temporarily took its place was a crusading hymn called ā€˜Partant pour la Syrieā€™.

Or: ā€œDeparting for Syria.ā€ Plus ca change, etc. Except, actually, maybe the plus cā€™est la meme chose part is mostly true for America at this point. I canā€™t ever imagine our own country being this generous; salut, salute.


Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.