The Marseillaise, the late eighteenth-century revolutionaries’ 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
They’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 “they” 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 English—who had slaughtered a French colonial regiment in 1754. The chorus says, translated:
To arms, citizens/ Form your battalions
Let’s march, let’s march/ Let an impure blood water our furrows
That line about “impure blood,” 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 Friday’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 ‘Marseillaise’ 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 ‘Marseillaise’. The song that temporarily took its place was a crusading hymn called ‘Partant pour la Syrie’.
Or: “Departing for Syria.” Plus ca change, etc. Except, actually, maybe the plus c’est la meme chose part is mostly true for America at this point. I can’t ever imagine our own country being this generous; salut, salute.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.