Should France change her national anthem?

Information about Donald Jenkins

Partant pour la Syrie, by Queen Hortense de Beauharnais, text by Alexandre de Laborde (c. 1807)
The poem by Labarde was originally titled Le beau Dunois telling the story of the handsome crusader Dunois. Prior to his departure to Syria he prays to the Virgin Mary that he will love the most beautiful woman and that he himself may be the bravest. His prayers are answered. On his return the brave warrior wins the hand of Isabelle. Love and honour prevail.—Paula Bär-Giese, soprano & pianist.

Campaigns are periodically mounted by more or less louche individuals to change the words of La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem. I personally see nothing wrong with the words of that anthem, which reflects the context at the time it was composed and, to a lesser extent, the rather tense moment when it became France’s official anthem §.

I’m less happy with La Marseillaise’s music. It’s a bit too fast to be dignified in non-military ceremonies. M Giscard d’Estaing tried to mitigate this issue by ordering it to be played at a slower tempo. The result, unfortunately, was a tune that had lost its martial entrain without having become in any way majestic. M Mitterrand was probably right to revert to the original version—although this may seem paradoxical, since his wife, Madame Danielle Mitterrand, was a prominent campaigner for a change in its words.

My contribution to this debate is an alternative suggestion: rather than changing the words of La Marseillaise, why not bring back Partant pour la Syrie, which was France’s National Anthem during the Second Empire? The music is magnificent, the words are quite dignified and beautiful:

Partant pour la Syrie
Le jeune et beau Dunois
Venant prier Marie
De bénir ses exploits.
Faites, reine immortelle,
Lui dit-il en partant.
Que j’aime la plus belle
Et sois le plus vaillant.

Il trace sur la pierre
Le serment de l’honneur,
Et va suivre à la guerre
Le comte, son seigneur.
Au noble vœu fidèle,
Il dit en combattant :
Amour à la plus belle,
Honneur au plus vaillant.

On lui doit la victoire,
dit le seigneur.
Puisque tu fais ma gloire,
Je ferai ton bonheur.
De ma fille Isabelle
Sois l’époux a l’instant,
Car elle est la plus belle
Et toi le plus vaillant.

A l’autel de Marie
Ils contractent tous deux
Cette union chérie
Qui seule rend heureux.
Chacun dans la chapelle
Disait en les voyant :
Amour à la plus belle,
Honneur au plus vaillant.

Partant pour la Syrie, by Queen Hortense de Beauharnais, text by Alexandre de Laborde (c. 1807)

Liberties, admittedly, are taken with History, since the comte de Dunois was a companion of Joan of Arc, not a Crusader. The song is a throwback to France’s old tradition of amour courtois, yet it has an impeccable revolutionary—or at any rate Bonapartist—pedigree. This explains why it was banned under the Restoration, despite being more dignified than that régime’s unofficial anthem, Vive Henri IV, whose unfortunate wording (it included the phrase J’aimons les filles et j’aimons le bon vin), prevented it being played in the presence of the Royal Family.