Tuesday, 18 September 2012

On French and British national anthems

I heard a wonderful story some years ago about two Englishmen who lived in France – rural France, in the Saintes area – in the 1990s. They were enjoying coverage of an England–France rugby match during the Five Nations series in the local tavern where they were known and on the whole accepted. Unfortunately, our Englishmen made the mistake of crowing too soon – for much of the match England was in the lead, and they were, of course, cock-a-hoop about this. But in the end the French came with a late surge and won the match. This was a mite embarrassing for our Englishmen, one can imagine, and it was made worse by the action of one of the French fans who had been drinking in the tavern at the same time. He swaggered over to their table, leaned down and thrust his face close to that of one of the Englishmen, eyeballing him at close range.

            “Hah!” he exclaimed, in basic English, with a strong French accent. “That for Agincourt.”

            Now the Englishman dined out on the story in grand style, seeing this as evidence of the pettiness of the French and their inability to understand the essential camaraderie of sport. But when you look at the words of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, dating of course from the days of the French revolution, but still sung with fervour, before rugby matches and on the occasion of French victory in the Olympics for example, it all makes a bit more sense. The Marseillaise is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather a paranoid confection. Not only do we have the warlike and rousing refrain “Aux armes, citoyens!” calling all French people to fight for their country, but this call is based on the conviction that the enemy is at the gate, threatening the people and all they care for. The interesting thing is not so much the adoption of the Marseillaise in the first place, at a time when the threat was real and most of Europe was at war or about to be at war with revolutionary France, but that they still sing it, unexpurgated, full of xenophobism and fury. Why is that, I wonder?

            Much is made of the Last Night of the Proms, and even of the mention of the Queen being ‘victorious’ in the British national anthem. These are sometimes said to exemplify the gung-ho imperialism still underpinning our national life. But when you remember that the vitriolic second verse of the national anthem has been quietly dropped (I haven’t heard it sung in years), and that in the third the Queen is reminded that she is to ‘defend our laws’ as a condition that we continue to wish her to reign over us, you have quite a different picture. Not to mention the fact that the most heartfelt community singing at the Last Night of the Proms, and the place of honour at the end of proceedings, is reserved for Jerusalem, which is essentially, for all Blake’s warlike language, a pledge for civil struggle, for social justice.

            I mention these differences as observations. I have no idea at all what significance (if any) they have. But I do just wonder whether, if the French were to decide to dump the Marseillaise in favour of a more peaceful song, Europe might be more ready to believe in their commitment to a united Europe. I haven’t studied the words of the national anthems of other European countries, and perhaps it would be an interesting piece of research. How much do the sentiments of a national anthem affect the attitudes of the people of a country towards their neighbours, and towards the wider world where there may well be enemies? Is it something that we should consider more carefully?

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