Should France change her national anthem?

 5th February, 2007
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 and 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 1.

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 Syrie2, 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.

  1. The Third Republic made it the National Anthem in 1879 and an official version was adopted by the Ministry for War in 1887 after being examined by a commission. ↩︎

  2. Partant pour la Syrie, traditionally dated 1807, is a classic example of songs or romances evoking the spirit of the Middle Ages and its troubadours, a genre that flourished under the First Empire. The melody was originally attributed to Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s daughter-in-law. Then the musicologist Arthur Pougin designated, as being the real author of the melody, a certain Louis-François-Philippe Drouet (1792-1855), flautist at the court of Louis King of Holland. The lyrics were written by Count Alexandre de Laborde (1774-1842), archaeologist. Recent discoveries explain Pougin’s reversal of the original attribution by his opposition to the Second Empire, and confirm Hortense as being the author of the music for Partant pour la Syrie, composed at Malmaison “while [his] mother was playing tric-trac”. (Mémoires, vol. 3, p. 119). ↩︎