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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronoto, Canada

Place de la Bastille, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Place de la Bastille, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Americans look to see if their flag is still waving. Canadians stand on guard for their country (unless they are French Canadians, in which case they protect their homes and their rights). Those in Great Britain wish their queen a long life. And the French? They grab weapons, form themselves into battalions, and spill impure blood. Watch out.

If you are going to be in France this coming Bastille Day (usually known as le quatorze juillet or la fête nationale in France), you might want to learn the words to La Marseillaise, which has been France’s national anthem, off and on, since the days of the Revolution. It was written to rouse citizens to repel invading armies from foreign countries, but it has become associated with Revolutionary fervour and republicanism, like the symbol of Marianne. So of course the emperors Napoleon I and Napoleon III banned it. (Thus when Tchaikovsky used the music to represent the French army in the 1812 Overture, he was taking liberties with historical accuracy.)

Tyrants and tigers and blood, oh my!

Here’s how it goes:

La Marseillaise, The French National Anthem

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé,
L’étendard sanglant est levé.
Entendez-vous dans nos campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons.

Click here to remind yourself of the tune. Note the interesting move into the minor key for the last two lines of the verse part.

Here’s the English translation, in a gender-neutral version.

La Marseillaise: French to English translation

Come, children of our homeland,
The day of glory has arrived.
Against us, tyranny’s bloody standard is raised
Do you hear in the countryside the howling of these ferocious soldiers?
They are coming to wrench your children and companions
From your arms and cut their throats.

To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
March! March!
Let impure blood drench our furrows.

Bastille Day in France: parades, concerts, parties and fireworks

Or not, as the case may be. The French have had a rather poor track record of repelling invasions since the song was written, so this is perhaps a case of wishful thinking.

There are six more verses, but it’s rare to find someone who knows the whole thing (and how many of you know all four verses of the Star-Spangled Banner, or all three of God Save the Queen?). The words are filled with violent images, with warriors and slaves and tyrants and even tigers (we are not making this up). If France’s emblem is a woman, here she is in full attack mode, willing to stop at nothing to protect her young.

Given this warlike song, it’s not surprising that in Paris, le quatorze juillet is celebrated with a military parade down the Champs-Elysées, and a flypast from the French precision aerobatic team, La Patrouille de France. Later in the day there are fireworks over the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadéro.

Most people, however, get together to eat and party. There is a big concert in the Place de la Bastille, pictured above, and about forty fire stations (casernes) throughout the city are flung open for Firemen’s Balls, starting at 9 p.m. the night before and ending at 4 a.m. on the 14th. Since this year, the 14th falls on a Wednesday, we can’t imagine that much work will get done all week long.

Bastille Day celebration in Burgundy, France

Outside Paris, people get together for large meals and dancing (assuming anyone can still move). Lynn McBride, who maintains the mouth-watering “Southern Fried French” blog, describes her plans for celebrating in Burgundy: “We have friends who bought and renovated an old train station in a pretty village. They invite about 30 or so friends for lunch every year. There is a tent set up in the garden for apéros, surrounded by a profusion of flowers. A local vigneron brings his wine and we taste some good Burgundy whites, and some crémants. Meanwhile, steaks and chops go onto the barbeque.

“There is a deep roof overhang along the front of the house where passengers once waited for the train, and our friends set up long tables in the shade of the overhang. There is a side table groaning with bowls of salads, sliced sausages, vegetables, casseroles and fresh fruit. We all settle in for a long, lovely meal. After the wine has flowed a bit, we sing a rousing version of La Marseillaise.”

Actually, it’s hard to imagine a non-rousing version. But hey – Marchez! Marchez! You’ll need to, to walk off the meal.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Casernes: Fire stations.
Crémant de Bourgogne: Sparkling white wine.
Mousseux: Term for fizzy white wine that is not made in the Champagne region.
Sapeurs-pompiers: Firefighters.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.