The Best National Anthems: France

At long last (okay, six days) we come to the end of our series counting down the best national anthems. And in the end, there was really only one choice.

France, “La Marseillaise
Longevity: official anthem since 1792
Singability: ranges from D4-E5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 4.1% of Olympic golds won; 1 men’s World Cup won (1998)
Student Ranking (number ranking it 1st/2nd/3rd/etc.): 6/4/2/0/3/0

Singing La Marseillaise
Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle singing his most famous composition, "La Marseillaise"

What, you expected Kiribati? If we’re being honest with each other, this series was never about identifying the world’s best national anthem. It was about identifying the 15th through 2nd best national anthems. (In descending order: Bangladesh, South Africa, Turkey, Nigeria, Canada, Greece, Uruguay, Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States.)

The top choice was never in doubt. Kind of like how anyone creating a survey to rank the hundred greatest bands of all time should just pre-print the ballots with “The Beatles” in the top spot and save everyone from having to write in those two words. (Hey, guess which national anthem the Fab Four inserted at the beginning of “All You Need Is Love.” Yep.) Not only did the French anthem earn as many first place votes from my students as the next three anthems combined, but it earned the second most second place votes.

Where to even start making the case for “La Marseillaise”…

How about the name? Unlike countries that don’t even bother naming their anthems (looking at you, South Africa, Uruguay, Russia, and Brazil), adopt some vaguely hortatory ode to political virtue (e.g., Greece, Turkey), simply name-check themselves (Canada, Germany), or highlight a figurehead (Britain, Japan), “La Marseillaise” is clearly rooted in a particular place, people, and story central to French identity. In this case, how citizen-soldiers from Marseilles and everywhere else in France streamed to Paris to defend the revolution against the forces of the Old Regime. (On this basis, only “The Star-Spangled Banner” and perhaps China’s “March of the Volunteers” are in the same ballpark.)

On musical terms, it’s both highly singable (the ideal range of a major 9th, and when sung in the traditional key of G, it pushes the singer just enough to demand greater commitment and passion) and perhaps the catchiest march tune ever written. Oodles of musicians have quoted or rearranged it: besides The Beatles… Rossini, Schumann, Debussy, Offenbach, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Wagner, Django Reinhardt, Serge Gainsbourg, Monty Python, and Metallica, for starters.

The lyrics… I guess I admire that the French wouldn’t try to hide the fact that the most effective way to construct a nation is to take it to war. (As the French found out in 1870-71 and 1939-40, war is also good at tearing nations apart.) Nothing like banding together in the shadow of “the bloody banner [of tyranny]” while “ferocious soldiers” approach “to cut the throats of our sons and women,” right? “To arms, citizens” might actually get someone off the couch and into the rapidly-forming “battalions” as they march off to drench their trenches with the “impure blood” of invading Austrians. (And how precious that the “children’s verse” has les enfants “Much less keen to survive [their elders] / Than to share their coffins”!)

Its bloodthirstiness sure struck a chord with my students (some of whom, I pray, joined me in keeping tongues in cheeks):

• It’s the total package. It has good, triumphant sounding music coupled with awesome lyrics that talk about blood and slaying their enemies. What more could you want in a national anthem?

• I put this one first because I love how it is a war cry. When I listen to it, it makes me want to go to war.

• I think my favorite part of this song is where it says, “To arms, citizens, / Form your battalions, / Let’s march, let’s march! That an impure blood.” I think this part of the anthem would would get me so amped at a sporting event. There’s nothing like evoking a violent sentiment prior to a soccer game.

Well, we’ll just ignore what Les Bleus did last year in South Africa. But here’s the clincher…

The greatest scene in the greatest movie ever made was built around “La Marseillaise.” Or as my friend Sam put it when I mentioned that I was nearing the reveal of the best national anthem: “It’s France, right? Casablanca?”

Even if you didn’t know that many of the extras in the café were actually European refugees who had fled German oppression, you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved. And consider that the most stirring American-made movie from America’s trademark “Good War” did not feature a sing-along to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but to an anthem that—as prototypically nationalistic as it is, and Nazis like Major Strasser made for even more “ferocious soldiers” than Austrians—manages to evoke a transnational yearning for liberty, equality, and fraternity. “Vive la France!” indeed.

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