Saturday, 21 November 2015

Under attack, France unites in resistance around the Marseillaise

No words in response to the Friday the thirteenth attacks in Paris have struck me as much as the message “je suis en terrasse” – I’m on a [café or restaurant] terrace. 

As a way of expressing defiance to the terrorists who attacked, among other places, a café and a restaurant, they can’t be bettered: they say, “we’re not going to be put off, we’re going to go on living the life we choose, despite your vile actions and your threats.”

French defiance: your acts won't drive me away from the life I choose

It’s relatively unusual, since this particular attack hasn’t produced much in the way of universally appealing slogans. Nothing so striking as “Je suis Charlie” after the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo or the first use of a phrase of this kind, “Nous sommes tous Américains”, we are all Americans, the day after 9/11. There has been one fine visual image, the peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower at its centre. It has power and elegance, but hasn’t had the impact one might expect.

A great symbol, but it hasn't taken of like “Je suis Charlie”
In the absence of overarching visual symbols, there’s an audible one that keeps recurring and really does incarnate French attitudes towards their aggressors: the singing of the Marseillaise.

The French are lucky in possessing a stirring anthem. One that it’s hard not to hear without wanting to sing it. Why, some of the best bits of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture are built around the Marseillaise. That’s ironic, since he wrote the piece to communicate quite the reverse message – the triumph of Russia over Napoleonic France. Sadly, the national anthem of Russia, as it appears in the same piece of music, is as dirge-like as our own anthem, here in Britain.

There was a bit of a scandal in Britain some weeks ago over the then newly-elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, failing to sing the anthem at a memorial service. He could never have said it, but I wish he’d replied that he found nothing sufficiently inspiring in that dreary tune to make him want to sing it.

I mean, compare God save the Queen with The Star Spangled Banner. All we Brits ask for is to be allowed to have the Queen reigning over for us for ages, to a stodgy tune. I prefer Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which England fans sing at rugby matches. On the other hand, given the recent performance of the team, something dirge-like is probably, and sadly, more appropriate.

The Americans, in contrast to the Brits, celebrate the continued resistance of their gallant forces to the overwhelming aggression of their dastardly (and, as it happens, British) foes.

The French call on their compatriots to rise up against the blood-soaked flag of tyranny. In passing, I have to admit that the Marseillaise also calls for the furrows of French fields to be irrigated with “impure blood”, which could lead to all sorts of racist notions of what kind of blood is pure – notions that have sadly played a role in the debate since the ISIS attacks. That’s going to be discussed repeatedly in the coming months and years, as we argue over the difference between the small numbers of Muslims behaving viciously, and the entire Muslim community.

That can wait, however. For now, let’s focus on the way the Marseillaise acts as a bond between Frenchmen in adversity.

Fans were being evacuated from the Stade de France, filing through the tunnels to the exits, spontaneously began to sing the anthem. The same scene occurred several times on the following days: the Marseillaise being sung by people gathering to mark the event. Again, on Friday evening a man, in an apartment near the Bataclan concert hall, started to sing it as the time of the attacks came round, one week on. Passers-by took it up in the street.

All this reminded me of a Frenchman I heard interviewed on the radio some years ago. As a young man, in 1940, following the disaster of the French defeat in May of that year, he was one of the handful who immediately responded to de Gaulle’s call to form a resistance to the Nazi occupation. He managed to make his way to London and eventually to the building the Churchill government had made available to de Gaulle for his headquarters. There was, as yet, no accommodation for the young volunteers and so he spent the first night with several dozen others, sleeping rough on the floors of the offices.

The young men were of many backgrounds and viewpoints – poor or wealthy, Catholic, Republican or Communist – thrown together in their sleeping bags on the hard floor. The one thing they had in common was that they were French, and they were determined to start on the long, hard and uncertain road which would take their nation back from humiliation to pride.

So, spontaneously, like the football fans in the tunnel at the Stade de France, or the Parisians near the Bataclan, in the lonely dark, they began softly to sing the Marseillaise. Which so fully expressed what united them, and their will to fight back.

Harking back to that time, and the spirit of resistance it generated, is perhaps the best way for the French to react to what happened in the ISIS attacks. Maybe its appropriate that the Marseillaise should be the principal symbol of their response.

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