La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, has a beautiful melody, but violent and bloody lyrics. Bastille Day, the French national day, is a symbol of freedom as it marks the release of political prisoners from the Bastille. However, it also signifies the start of an extremely bloody revolution.
When singing God Save The Queen, it is improbable that English people sincerely believe and mean what they are singing, and it is unlikely that they consider what the words of the anthem represent every time. It is purely a force of habit. The same is likely true for the French. But the words of an anthem do have meaning and are embedded into national culture and identity, revealing the foundations upon which a nation was built. When I first researched what the words of La Marseillaise meant, I was shocked, but also intrigued and taken in. Other anthems, such as Italy’s Il Canto degli Italiani, also feature violent lyrics, but, for me, no other anthem I have ever heard could match the sheer passion and emotion of La Marseillaise belted out inside the Stade de France. It casts a spell in a way and, through it, it brings people together. However, the lyrics include a literal call to arms (‘aux armes citoyens’), and was first used in 1792, after almost three years of a revolution which killed hundreds of thousands. La Marseillaise celebrated and encouraged violence even after all of the bloodshed.
In the US, the 4th of July marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to sign what they had spent over a month writing. Although this event happened during the War of Independence, the day celebrates breaking free from the oppressive rule of the British. Americans celebrate the signing of a document; a provocative act but not a violent one. Bastille day, likewise, celebrates breaking free from oppressive rule. However, in this case the French celebrate an act of violence. They killed the governor of the Bastille and paraded his head around Paris on a pike. There is no doubt that both days symbolise freedom, but there is a profound difference in the acts being celebrated.
Historians have suggested that the violence which characterised the French Revolution was initially used reluctantly, but once it began it was clearly widely supported. The gilets jaunes have protested angrily and sometimes violently over recent weeks against President Macron’s diesel taxes and other policies. The protests quickly gained widespread support. A poll in December suggested that the protestors had the support of roughly 80% of the public. Even when they turned violent, support for the protests didn’t waver. The way the French revolt is substantially different than how the British revolt, however. Looking at the history of British rioting, civic unrest and violence in the UK generally happens on a smaller scale, is less calculated, and is less well supported.
That is not to say that French people are inherently violent. Ask any French person whether they like violence, and they would almost certainly say ‘no’. But when violence is used to push back against the establishment as it so often has been, it often finds wide support. As Charlotte Hughes-Morgan mentioned in her recent article, her French colleague shrugged off the violence of the gilets jaunes, saying simply ‘en France, on aime la Revolution’. Pushback against authority is a general theme throughout French history, ranging from the original French Revolution to May ’68, from the Communards to what we are seeing today.
As I see it, France’s history of political instability and violence can be, in part, attributed to its glorification of the French Revolution. It has helped engrain into French culture a mistrust of any kind of political elite and given rise to the danger that anger might spill over into political violence.