La Marseillaise - France's National Anthem Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

La Marseillaise - France's National Anthem

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Ta-duh, ta-duh, duh, duh, duh, du-uh, duh-duh...

A man singing

Whenever a film director wants the audience to know that the action is taking place in France, the oldest trick in the book is to show us the Eiffel Tower and play the distinctive opening bars of a tune written more than 200 years ago by a royalist officer in Strasbourg. In the early days of the July Monarchy (1830-1848) French composer Hector Berlioz produced his own arrangement of the 'Hymne des Marseillais' and in 1880 Tchaikovsky used the theme to symbolise Napoleon's French army in his 1812 overture. Once a revolutionary call to arms, today 'La Marseillaise' is firmly established and recognised worldwide as the French national anthem.

The Battle Hymn of the Rhine Army

The tune and words are generally accepted to have been written in one night (24-25 April, 1792) by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle1 (1760-1836), a captain in the Engineers. The young officer was stationed in Strasbourg at that time and happened to have some skills as a musician. In 1915 Rouget de Lisle's ashes were transferred to Les Invalides in Paris.

The story goes that a certain General Kellermann, in command of the Rhine Army at that time, asked the Mayor of Strasbourg, Dietrich, to commission a patriotic revolutionary battle-hymn. Dietrich turned to aspiring poet and amateur musician Rouget de Lisle. After an initial private rendition at Dietrich's home, the song was performed for the regiment and was an instant success with the troops. Originally entitled 'Le Chant de Guerre de l'Armée du Rhin' - 'The Battle Hymn of the Rhine Army' - it quickly spread throughout revolutionary France.

'La Marseillaise'

The song won further popular acclaim when it was sung by General François Mireur at a patriotic banquet given in Marseilles for his newly formed militia batallions. The revolutionary battle-hymn got a jubilant reception from the volunteers and Mireur decided to adopt it as a marching song. He had copies printed under the new name of 'Chant de Guerre aux Armées aux Frontières' - 'Battle-hymn of the Frontier Armies' - and distributed them among the troops as they prepared to set off for Paris. They sang it with gusto all the way to the capital.

It was at this time that the song acquired its new name. When the Marseilles militia made their impressive entry into Paris on 30 July, 1792, it was to a rousing rendition of their favourite marching song. The Parisian crowds instantly warmed to its patriotic call to arms and dubbed it 'La Marseillaise', after the troops that had brought it to the heart of the revolution. Little more than a week later, the revolutionary militias stormed the Tuileries on 10 August to the strains of Rouget de Lisle's battle-hymn and spurred on by his blood-thirsty stanzas.

The Official National Anthem

'La Marseillaise' was initially established as a national song of the (First) Republic by decree on 14 July, 1795, but was banned under the First Empire, and the Restoration. A return to grace at the time of the July Revolution in 1830 was followed by a resurgence in popularity until it was again abolished under Napoleon III's 2nd Empire. It was not until 1879, under the Third Republic2 that it was re-established as the official national anthem. In 1887, an 'official version' was agreed upon and adopted by the War Ministry. Since then it has remained the tune played at all official state ceremonies or sporting events.

During the Second World War and the Nazi occupation 'La Marseillaise' was associated with the patriotic Free French and resistance movements. In September 1944, Free French officials were giving instructions that 'La Marseillaise' was to be sung in schools to 'celebrate our liberation and honour our dead'. This is poignantly shown in a famous scene from the wartime classic Casablanca. When a group of German officers begin singing a patriotic song a French Resistance hero (who is actually Hungarian) leads his countrymen in a stirring rendition of their national anthem symbolically drowning out the Aryan strains.

The 4th and 5th Republics

'La Marseillaise' was named as the official national anthem in the written constitution of the Fourth Republic in 1946, and again in October 1958 in that of De Gaulle's Fifth Republic. In 1974, newly elected President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had some changes made to the score to make it closer to Rouget de Lisle's original. In 1981 François Mitterand succeeded Giscard and promptly reversed the changes, returning to the 1887 version. It has remained untouched at the time of writing, summer 2002, and looks set for a long run yet!

The Words to 'La Marseillaise'

There are actually seven verses but only the first and sixth are are usually sung at official ceremonies.


Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé.
L'étendard sanglant est levé!
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Egorger vos fils et vos compagnes!

Come, children of the fatherland
The glorious day has come!
The bloody flag of tyranny,
Is raised against us.
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of these savage soldiers?
They come right into our arms
To cut the throats of your sons and your wives.

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !
To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions
Let us march, Let us march!
That our fields may run red;
steeped in tainted blood.


Que veut cette horde d'esclaves,
De traîtres, de rois conjurés ?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves,
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés ?
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés!
Français, pour nous, ah ! quel outrage
Quels transports il doit exciter !
C'est nous qu'on ose méditer
De rendre à l'antique esclavage !

What do they hope to gain,
These treacherous slaves and false kings?
Whom do they plan to enchain,
in these irons they prepared so long ago?
For we Frenchmen, Oh, what infamy!
How this must madden us!
That they should dare to plan for us,
The fate of slaves of ancient times!



Quoi ! des cohortes étrangères
Feraient la loi dans nos foyers !
Quoi ! ces phalanges mercenaires
Terrasseraient nos fiers guerriers !
Terrasseraient nos fiers guerriers !
Grand Dieu ! par des mains enchaînées
Nos fronts sous le joug se ploieraient
De vils despotes deviendraient
Les maîtres de nos destinées !

What! Would foreign foes
Rule over us in our own homes?
What! Would venal ranks
Lay low our proud warriors!
Almighty Lord! Would their enchainèd hands
Subdue us under their yoke?
Would wicked tyrants become
Masters of our destinies!



Tremblez, tyrans et vous perfides
L'opprobre de tous les partis,
Tremblez ! vos projets parricides
Vont enfin recevoir leurs prix !
Vont enfin recevoir leurs prix !
Tout est soldat pour vous combattre,
S'ils tombent, nos jeunes héros,
La terre en produit de nouveaux,
Contre vous tout prêts à se battre !

Tremble, tyrants and traitors!
Infamy in all its forms,
Tremble! Your murderous intentions
will soon be justly punished!
Every man will fight you,
And if our young soldiers fall,
The land will give forth others;
All too eager to fight against you!



Français, en guerriers magnanimes,
Portez ou retenez vos coups !
Epargnez ces tristes victimes,
A regret s'armant contre nous.
A regret s'armant contre nous.
Mais ces despotes sanguinaires,
Mais ces complices de Bouillé,
Tous ces tigres qui, sans pitié,
Déchirent le sein de leur mère !

Men of France, be merciful warriors,
Strike hard or not at all!
Spare these poor souls,
Who bear arms against us unwillingly.
But as for these bloody despots,
As for Bouillé's co-conspirators,
Down with all those heartless monsters
Who would tear at their mother's breast!



Amour sacré de la Patrie,
Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs
Liberté, Liberté chérie,
Combats avec tes défenseurs !
Combats avec tes défenseurs !
Sous nos drapeaux que la victoire
Accoure à tes mâles accents,
Que tes ennemis expirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire !

Sacred love of the fatherland
Guide and support our vengeful arms.
Liberty, beloved liberty,
Fight with your defenders;
Fight with your defenders.
Under our flags, may victory
Rush to your manly strains;
So that as your enemies are dying
They might see your triumph and our glory!



Nous entrerons dans la carrière
Quand nos aînés n'y seront plus,
Nous y trouverons leur poussière
Et la trace de leurs vertus.
Et la trace de leurs vertus.
Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre
Que de partager leur cercueil,
Nous aurons le sublime orgueil
De les venger ou de les suivre

We will enter the fray
When our elders have passed away.
We will rejoin their remains,
And the remains of their virtue!
Far from wishing to survive them
We would rather share their grave!
We will have the sublime honour
Of avenging them or joining them!

1There is a theory that Rouget de Lisle did not write the score, as his musical abilities would have been insufficient, but this has not been proven.2In case you're wondering, the Second Republic didn't last long. Blink and you missed it.

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