On Saturday, 11 July 1998, I was sitting with my wife in one of the small cafés around the picturesque old port of Honfleur in Normandy, enjoying an afternoon coffee in the sunshine. A young father passed by, pushing the pram with his baby, lost in his thoughts, and quietly humming … la Marseillaise !
We had a large grin on our face. Only two weeks before, this would have been unimaginable. The young gentleman wasn’t probably even realising he was repeating in his head the national anthem one day before the much-awaited final against Brazil in Saint-Denis.
Within one magical week, the national anthem, this hoplelessly outdated 200-year-old ‘war song’, had become the irresistible hit of the summer, like the ‘Macarena’ or the ‘Lambada’ some years earlier.
A few days before I had attended the semi-final against Croatia in the Stade de France and had already been surprised to see people whom I had I known as rather laid-back, almost ‘blasé’, post-national citizens of the new Europe, howl bellicose rhymes about ‘impure blood watering the furrows of our soil’ as if their life depended on it.
One has to admit that the Marseillaise (which paradoxically was written in Strasbourg and got its name from the Parisians) is a musical master-piece. Easy to sing along despite a rather complex melody. The refrain ‘aux armes, citoyens!’ can be shouted at the top of one’s lungs without any risk of sounding false, and the opening line has a kind of eternal Mozartian beauty which even seduced the Beatles.
But that does not change the fact that it’s a war song, with war lyrics. And any kind of glorification of war, even if understandable in its historical context, was felt to be strangely out-of-date with the spirit of the 1970s and 80s. In these years the Marseillaise was cheekily parodied or seriously criticised rather than staunchly defended. Serge Gainsbourg released an ironic reggae version, the singer-songwriter Renaud declared that even in reggae-style it ‘made him want to vomit’, and the brilliant satirist Pierre Desproges regularly used the song’s old-fashioned lyrics for his absurd prose. Michel Platini famously said that over his entire active career, he had never sung the Marseillaise, because ‘this war anthem has nothing to do with the game’. And during the interviews I carried out for my PhD thesis several respondents referred to the Marseillaise as ‘barbaric’ or ‘ridiculous’.
In 1998, however, the Marseillaise was re-appropriated by the French. It was the times of rehabilitation of national symbols. The French were in need of reassurance, destabilised by globalisation, and at the same time determined not to leave these symbols to the extreme right. Since then, the Marseillaise has become mainstream. At solemn occasions, people even sing it with their hand on their heart, a gesture which to my knowledge has no tradition in France and must have been copied from the Americans. One of the funniest performances ever was the improvised one by the French team two years ago after their stunning 3-0 victory against Ukraine that qualified them for the World Cup.
Some months later, in Brazil, when France played Honduras, the loudspeakers failed and the match was kicked off without the national anthems. Everybody had a laugh. But when I wrote a column in Le Monde the next day, just asking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, whether we really needed these pre-match anthems, I touched a sensitive chord, at least according to the readers who tracked me down on my personal mailbox in order to let me know what a depraved, élitist cosmopolitan I was.
In its long, tumultuous history, the good old Marseillaise has had many different lives. It was written as a marching song for an army of ‘citoyens’ willing to defend their newly-won freedom in the 1790s; a century later it was a solemn reminder of revanchist duties during the third Republic; it became a slightly grotesque reminder of by-gone times of nationalism in the 1970s; and it was rediscovered as a convenient rallying cry of folklore patriotism at football occasions. Over the centuries, its old-fashioned lyrics had become ever more abstract. Who would have thought that the lines about ‘tyranny’s blood-stained banner’ or ‘those ferocious soldiers who cut the throats of your sons and women’ would come back to haunt the French in such a concrete, literal manner?
Yesterday evening, in Wembley, without any doubt the best possible place on this planet to play a football match after what happened last Friday, the Marseillaise started yet another life, as a transnational anthem for liberty, deploying all its evocative power. An overload of emotion. But a very important foto for the European family album! It will be difficult to hear the Marseillaise at future occasions without thinking of this moment. But perhaps, if we are very lucky, some young father, next June, will hum it innocently while pushing his tram. The day before the France-England final, in Saint-Denis.