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DayeTime: Celebrating 'French-ness' with a song

My mother-in-law was very proud of her French heritage.

French was the primary language in her home when she was growing up and in the home when her first two children were born. English took over after that, although the family still spoke a lot of French in the house.

Mama Mitchell was proud that she not only spoke Louisiana French, but that she also could read and write Parisien French.

Reading her prayers in French was one way she retained her connection to all of the various French families in her family tree that came before her. Another thing she liked to do was to sing La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France.

Today is Bastille Day, July 14, and it is a good time to reflect on the “French-ness” of this area, of my wife’s family and of half of the heritage of my children.

With that in mind, this column looks at La Marseillaise, which has been called a “perfect” anthem. It not only stirs the hearts of those who call France their home or their ancestral home but of the non-French alike.

Those of other nationalities who don’t speak a word of French are moved by the beat, the drive, the emotion contained in the music and that lyrical language they don’t understand. In short, it makes you want to get up, pick up the closest rifle and march off to kill any enemy threatening the motherland.

The “War Song for the Rhine Army,” (Chant de guerre pour l'Armée du Rhin) was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle to mark France’s declaration of war against Austria -- homeland of Queen Marie Antoinette of “let them eat cake” fame (which she may never have said).

The Austrians were a tad “miffed” by the beheading of Marie and her husband, King Louis XVI, and had deployed armies toward the French border.

De Lisle lived in the northeast city of Strasbourg, which has sometimes been French and sometimes been German throughout its history. Its name is German and literally means “Town of Roads,” but most likely meant “Crossroads.”

When volunteers from the city of Marseille were heard singing the song as they marched through the streets of Paris on their way to war, it acquired a nickname honoring that band of volunteers. The nickname stuck.

Following is the literal English translation of the first verse and chorus of the French National Anthem. Be warned. It’s a bit “dark.” "America the Beautiful" it ain’t.

But don’t be too harsh. Remember, our National Anthem is about a fort that got pummeled overnight but refused to surrender. Those words were put to the music of an “unsingable” melody of a popular English tavern song of the day.

The strength of an anthem is not in its words, but in how the song moves the patriot who hears it.

Arise, children of the Fatherland./
The day of glory has arrived!/
Against us, tyranny's/
Bloody standard is raised. (repeat)/
Do you hear, in the countryside/
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?/
They're coming right into your arms/
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!/

To arms, citizens./
Form your battalions./
Let's march, let's march!/
Let an impure blood/
Water our furrows!

Another English version which attempts to soften the revolutionary call to arms of the Gallic original while imposing an English rhyme scheme goes like this:

Ye sons of France, awake to glory./
Hark, hark! what myriads bid you rise!/
Your children, wives and white-haired grandsires./
Behold their tears and hear their cries! (repeat)/
Shall hateful tyrants, mischiefs breeding/
With hireling hosts, a ruffian band/
Affright and desolate the land/
While peace and liberty lie bleeding?/

To arms, to arms, ye brave!/
The avenging sword unsheath./
March on, march on!/
All hearts resolv'd/
On victory or death!

Which version do you prefer?

The second one is more like something we would sing in this country.

“Peace and liberty lie bleeding” and “victory or death” are more our style than evoking images of roaring ferocious soldiers coming to cut the throats of our children and women only to have us water our crops with their blood.

Remember also that it was this anthem that Napoleon used to inspire his armies to sweep his enemies aside from Madrid to Moscow from 1803 to 1815. It is probably more effective than a song about your white-haired grandpa telling you to get up and do something.

Napoleon surrendered to the British on July 15, 1815 -- less than a month after being soundly defeated at Waterloo, Belgium on June 22, 1815.

I wonder if he delayed his surrender so he could celebrate one last Bastille Day of freedom before being sent to the island of St. Helena where he spent the last six years of his life.

While we’re on the subject, just a “short” note about Bonaparte. Napoleon was actually 5’7” tall -- not the 5-footer he is often portrayed to have been.

He was an inch taller than Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who defeated “Boney’s” navy at Trafalgar in 1803. He was only two inches shorter than Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who drove him out of Spain and defeated him at Waterloo.

The misperception of the slightly-taller-than-average emperor (the average height of French males was 5’5” back then) being a miniature tyrant could stem from the fact that a French “foot” was longer than the British/American “foot.”

Napoleon was 5’2” in French feet. If the French say their leader is 5’2”, who are we to argue?

While Bonaparte was leading French forces against the English in Europe, President James Madison was the U.S. Commander-in-Chief against the Redcoats over here in the War of 1812. He was only 5’4” tall in English/American feet, one of our Founding Fathers and holds the distinction of being our shortest President and the only one forced to flee Washington, D.C., due to an invading army.

Have a happy Bastille Day, and vive les Etats-Unis. (Long live the United States).


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