Anthems for France

Virtually every political regime has possessed a hymn as a symbol of its values and aspirations. Accordingly, changes of regime have frequently demanded a change of song, as was seen in 1830 when ‘La Parisienne’ (The Song of Paris) became the face of the July Monarchy in France. The establishment of the Vichy regime in 1940 followed this historic pattern: while there was no official anthem in the northern part of France occupied by the Nazis, two were adopted in the unoccupied, collaborationist south.

The first of these anthems was ‘La Marseillaise’ (The Song of Marseille). Originally entitled ‘Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée’ (War Song for the Army), it was composed by Rouget de Lisle, a French army officer of the Revolution in 1792, and was adopted as the first official national anthem for France in 1795. With the outbreak of WWII it was banned in northern France but persisted in southern Vichy France in a revised form. Chief of state Philippe Pétain selected particular verses for their relevance to his new political mission, travail, famille, patrie (work, family, country), including those beginning ‘Amour sacre de la patrie’ (Sacred love of the fatherland) and ‘Allons enfants de la patrie’ (Let us proceed, children of the fatherland). The hymn was played whenever Pétain gave a speech or made an entrance to a town. Despite these attempts to use the song to unite the population in support of the Vichy regime, there were fears that the anthem had lost some of its original power as a symbol of France. So in 1941, the deputy leader of Vichy, Francois Darlan, called for a law that obliged people to give symbols such as the anthem and the flag their due respect. This coincided with a renewed public emphasis on singing to foster community spirit, with posters for the Chantiers de jeunesse (youth camps) sporting the slogan Chanter, c’est s’unir (To sing is to unite). Darlan also insisted that if a member of government was not present at a ceremony, ‘La Marseillaise’ could not be sung without authorisation. Punishment ran as far as imprisonment. This rule gave the regime monopoly over the usage of the song and helped to defend against Resistance efforts to appropriate the old hymn as a symbol of lost French heritage. Despite this, nightclubs in Paris still incorporated fragments of ‘La Marseillaise’ into their mixes and played them defiantly to the Germans.

The second Vichy hymn was ‘Marechal, nous voilà!’ (Marshal, here we are!), which was composed in 1941 and gained popularity in part due to its performers. These included well-known French singers Andrex and André Dassary (who was held prisoner in Germany for the first part of the war before being released) and the orchestra of Ray Ventura, a French jazz legend. In order to ensure its acceptance among the population, it was taught to children in schools and sung at major sporting events and public spectacles. Although never used in official programmes or formal situations, it has often been remembered as the official hymn of Vichy in order to downplay the role played by ‘La Marseillaise’. The association of the latter with such a heinous period of French history could threaten its status as an emblem of France.

Ironically, although ‘Marechal, nous voilà!’ was believed to have been composed by two French citizens, André Montagard and Charles Courtiouz, it was in fact a plagiarised version of ‘La Margoton du bataillon’ (Margoton’s batallion)  by Casimir Oberfeld, a Pole murdered in Auschwitz in 1945. In other words, the regime for which Oberfeld’s song came to be used collaborated with the regime that caused his death. There is perhaps some historic vengeance in the fact that ‘Marechal, nous voilà!’ was taken over and parodied by Resistance movements. For example, Julien Clément, head of music for the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (Forces for the French Resistance), set up in the later stages of the war, changed the lyrics to ‘General, nous voilà!’ (General, here we are!), referring to Charles de Gaulle, the head of the Free French Forces. Clément’s other resistance activities included publishing an ode to Pétain which had ‘merde pour Hitler’ (death to Hitler) as an acrostic. Unaware of its clandestine message, Radio Vichy broadcast the song on one of its programmes.

By Daisy Fancourt


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