“Barbarian or not, “La Marseillaise” serves as a totem”

The cross : Our national anthem has a very warlike purpose. Is it conceivable to replace the first verse of The Marseillaise by another, less belligerent?

Albrecht Sonntag: The first verse is the one that has entered the national memory. This choice was made little by little, relegating all the other stanzas of this song – quite long (seven verses, Editor’s note) – in the cupboard of history. The first stanza is thus taken out of its initial context and by a process of abstraction is now a hymn in the collective memory. Once such a song is set up as a symbol, it freezes.

However, there are many who criticize its bloody, outdated character…

AS: The lyrics of The Marseillaise come from a vocabulary that dates from the end of the 18th century, which personally disconcerted me when I decided to learn it, upon my arrival in France – I was born and raised in Germany. But today, this song is above all the expression of a desire for cohesion, it has become a totem around which we profess our desire to belong. Everyone doesn’t care what is sung somehow, the main thing is to sing it together and at the same time.

However, and this is more worrying, these words have also found relevance. How could the appeal to citizens to arm themselves to resist not apply to Ukrainians? Visibly, “the bloody banner of tyranny” still exists in 2022. I wonder who, on Sunday, will be sensitive to this black irony of history. Probably nobody, precisely because the song, decontextualized, is anchored as a symbol in the collective memory.

Is this the case for other European anthems?

AS: It depends. In Germany, for example, the anthem had an innocuous and somewhat silly first stanza, but which had been tainted by Nazism. It therefore became unusable, and was replaced by another in 1952. Collective memory endorsed this exchange seventy years ago and today, no one can sing the original text anymore. The Spanish anthem, for its part, is sung very little because no agreement has been found that would grant all the communities.

In France, is the national anthem less criticized than in the past?

AS: It has become more consensual since the 1998 World Cup. The Marseillaise then swung into another dimension, out of a desire for cohesion and belonging, which made it less attackable. Criticisms of the bloodthirsty nature of the lyrics never entirely ceased, but they became ineffective. The symbol has become untouchable. I knew a former coach of the Blues who declared, before being appointed: “I don’t sing this barbaric hymn. » Once in office, he sang it like everyone else. Not to do so would have been seen as unacceptable. Barbarian or not, The Marseillaise serves as a totem.

But isn’t it also a symbol that the extreme right seeks to appropriate?

AS: On the contrary, I believe that The Marseillaise is a nice illustration of the failure of the extreme right to appropriate the symbols of the Republic. This song, thanks to football, crosses the various strata of society and all political fields. Which is no mean feat, for a symbol like this. The attacks of 2015 also reactivated the need to cling to this symbol. This song is about declaring that we want to live together. A profession of faith in the Republic, which remains as much a legacy as a message.


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