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France Wants Anthem Taught in Schools

A bill currently in front of parliament in France would make learning the national anthem, the Marseillaise, part of the school curriculum. But the proposal is controversial, given the song's violent imagery.

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"I'm so tired of practicing the Marseillaise"

The first few bars of France's national anthem are recognized in much of the world. In France itself, there's no escaping the tune, although not that many people actually know all the words.

Frankreich - Kroatien

Members of France's national soccer team during the 2004 European championships in Portugal

Jerome Riviere, a member of the French parliament, would like to change that. He has proposed an amendment to a school reform bill that would make teaching the National Anthem part of the school curriculum. He was inspired to push for the legislation after one of his nephews asked him about "that soccer song."

"To some of them, it is just a sports song," he said. "It is much more, and I think it is important that they know that."

According to him, the song can teach children about values of liberty, freedom and fraternity which were fought for in the French Revolution. Too few, he said, are familiar with the song and its lyrics.

Violence and gore

Truppenbesuch

French President Jacques Chirac (left) rewiewing the troops on National Day in 2004

The Marseillaise was composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a military captain, in 1792 when France was at war with Austria. The song he composed, originally called the "War Song for the Rhine Army," was meant to motivate the troops. But that summer, revolutionary soldiers from Marseilles sang the song as they entered Paris and it has been known as the Marseillaise ever since.

Despite the French's love for the song, or at least the tune, the lyrics are still somewhat controversial. The Marseillaise is essentially a war song with violent imagery, such as those in the first verse.

Arise children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived
Against us tyranny's
Bloody standard is raised
Listen to the sound in the fields
The howling of these fearsome soldiers
They are coming into our midst
To cut the throats of your sons and consorts

Part of the refrain calls on citizens to let "impure blood water our furrows," words which have caused many to question the appropriateness of teaching those words to children in 21st century, multi-cultural France.

"How do you expect eight-year-old children to understand the notion of 'impure blood'?" asked Pierre-Louis Fagniez, a member of parliament for the right-of-center UMP party. He supports the drive to teach the Marseillaise in schools, but thinks the lyrics should be changed, since he worries the lyrics could make the children of immigrants feel less at home in France and somehow "less French" than other kids.

Kopftuch Demonstration in Paris

Veiled women holding the French flag during a demonstration in Paris

"[The song] suggests that some people have pure blood and others have impure blood. It's the opposite of what we are trying to teach them in our society," he said. "These words are at the very least shocking and at worst can be misunderstood."

Historical context

But supporters of teaching the song, like 19-year-old Oliver Decaux, who himself can hum a few bars but who doesn't know the words, think it is necessary to look at the lyrics in their historical context. Although politically incorrect, Decaux said the "impure blood" refers to the blood of kings, who thought they were above the common people, but who were actually traitors to France.

"You have to think of when the Marseillaise became the national anthem," he said. "It's a song from the French Revolution and I find the words beautiful and poetic."

Französische Schüler demonstrieren gegen Reform

High school students shout slogans during a demonstration to protest against government plans to reform the education system in Paris on Tuesday

Some artists have already tinkered with the lyrics, such as the legendary singer Serge Gainsbourg, who came up with a reggae version of the anthem in which he made fun of the martial imagery. His version became a hit, but angered many people, including military supporters who disrupted some of the musician's concerts. Perhaps they took the song's call to heart.

Hurry to your manly tone
So that in death your enemies
See your triumph and our glory!

To arms citizens
Form your battalions
March, march!

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