Thoughts on ‘La Marseillaise’, the greatest national anthem ever written, and La France, belle et eternelle. July 14, 2011.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

I am not in Paris today, but my mind and heart most assuredly are, for today the pomp and circumstance of the republic will be fully displayed, not least because its president, M. Sarkozy, universally written off as chief executive for a second term, has, thanks to the hijinx and pratfalls of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (once the leading Socialist candidate) been resurrected. Indeed, he might take the name Dieudonne’, the sobriquet of Louis XV; after all virtually every French head of state has regarded himself so… and the suddenly ebullient Sarkozy is no exception.

Down the Champs Elysee the crack troops in full dress regalia will march to tunes well known to every citizen… but only one such tune will make the blood of every loyal Frenchman race… That tune is “La Marseillaise”, the first national anthem, the bloodiest, the most resounding, the greatest of them all. See for yourself…

Many people have sung “La Marseillaise”, but my favorite rendition is by Mireille Mathieu; it is at once elegant, chic, arousing, with every word clear and distinctly enunciated, something most helpful to those of us not to the chateau born. You can find it in any search engine and should go now to find and play it over and over again… “La Marseillaise”, you see, is the greatest recruiting tune, and to hear it is to enlist in the service of France.

The fall of the Bastille, July 14, 1789.

In the heart of ancien regime Paris stood a fortress, grim, outmoded, a prison hardly used at all… but a living reminder of such outrages as lettres de cachet (with which French sovereigns could imprison anyone without a warrant or public reason) and the manifold ways in which the Bourbon dynasty had trampled the people, contravening the enlightened spirit of the late 18th century. This spirit turned all France (except Louis XVI and his Court) into reformers… even though they had no idea what that meant or how soon it would get out of control; reform is what the nation wanted… the ancient Estates General (which hadn’t met since the 17th century) was what they got.

That meant all of the nobility belonged to the First Estate; all the clergy to the Second Estate, and everyone else to the Third Estate, which thus comprised over 95 percent of the population. It was intended by the illiberal Court that the First and Second Estates (presumed conservative in their orientation) would always outvote the Third Estate and that its members would acquiescence, bend the knee, pay the taxes needed, while remaining respectful and silent. Ma foi! Cardinal Richelieu himself might well have found such a task daunting; hapless Louis XVI had no clue whatever.

From the very moment the Estates General was called, the sovereign found himself poorly advised, badgered by members of the Royal Family, the most privileged and ancien of all. He was over his head… and in large measure he failed not because he was a tyrant abusing the powers he had… but because he was a rather enlightened gentleman himself who didn’t use his powers. He was the perfect monarch, if you wanted a leader who could not lead. Into this vacuum, the “people” and their representatives stepped gingerly (grateful that their sovereign had not summarily dismissed and imprisoned them, or worse). To make matters worse for His Most Christian Majesty, his eldest son, the Dauphin of France, died. A doting father withdrew from view, grieving for his beloved child. It was the worst possible moment for such humanity.

The people, patient no longer.

The unimaginable had already happened as Louis XVI and his regime imploded. The monarchy which governed France had, in the person of its king, quite simply ceased to rule. People saw it… but, incredulous, they did not believe it; surely the king was planning his counter offensive right this minute and woe to those on the wrong side of this pressing matter.

Among those who felt sure their sire would retaliate were the people of Paris; rumors were rife that the king’s soldiers were en route. Since such an action might have been expected from any reasonably self-protective sovereign, the people thought their king would do so… but the military was already beyond his majesty’s control. The people didn’t know that…

The result was the fall of the Bastille at the hands of a mob morphing from subjects into patriots. Sadly, its cells were not full of the good, afflicted people of France; in fact, they had hardly a prisoner at all. What matter! The Bastille’s governor, the Marquis de Launay, was a “tyrant” by definition. And his bloody head, hacked from his body, paraded about the town on a pike, was a dandy example of what a righteous and enraged people could do. These were the sentiments of the nation on this date in 1789. And they found themselves in the song originally called “Chant de guerre pour l’Armee du Rhin,” written and composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792.

From the very first moment the revolutionary solders of the city of Marseille marched through Paris rousing the dead and inspiring the fretful with this most glorious march and its lurid lyrics, “La Marseillaise” has been more than an anthem; it has been the living symbol of La France, enraged, aroused, marching, marching always on the side of right and the people. As such in 1795 it was adopted as the nation’s first anthem… a gauntlet thrown down wherever tyrants abide… wherever people can take inspiration from the most inspirational song of all.

Facts about “La Marseillaise” and its universal significance.

Many people had a hand in its creation. Rouget de Lisle wrote the song and has garnered virtually all the renown that comes from writing its legendary lyrics. The melody is an adaptation of a theme written in 1781 by Giovan Battista Viotti. His contribution is virtually unknown. No doubt the French like it this way; such an anthem on such a subject must perforce be written by a Frenchman.

Right from the moment Rouget de Lisle penned the lyrics, “La Marseillaise” was looked on as far more than a mere anthem. It became the voice of revolution, with its stark rendition of what counter revolutionaries aimed to do and what the good citizens must do to keep the freedoms wrenched from the king.

The imagery is stark! Bold! Unyielding! It calls for the levee en masse of all citizens… and makes it clear what will happen to them all should they fail.

This is a song of resolution! Action! Moral purity and sacrifice; terrible threats and great challenges.

The lyrics are insistent…

“To arms, citizens, Form your battalions, Let’s march, let’s march!”

or, in the original French, each word urgent! Uplifting! Thrilling!

“Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vos bataillons, Marchons, marchons!”

These diamond-sharp words have put tyrants everywhere on notice, which is why such tyrants, even in France, have prohibited its playing. Napoleon Bonaparte did so; so did King Louis XVIII.

But the reason La France is belle et eternelle is because she is at her best the repository and unflinching defender of every virtue found in “La Marseillaise” and when its strident chords were first played “Le jour de gloire est arrive’ ‘”… and since its glorious inception has never left. Vive La France!

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About The Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is, where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at

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