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La Marseillaise: All you need to know about the French national anthem

Aux armes, readers, here's a closer look at the rather bloody song that is so dear to many in France (but not everyone).

La Marseillaise: All you need to know about the French national anthem
French fans wave flags before a football match between France and Finland (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)

Chances are you’ve heard the national anthem of France, and chances are that you remember it. 

It’s a powerful revolutionary song with some graphic lyrics (more on this later).

It’s sung at formal events like citizenship ceremonies and the July 14th celebrations and it’s also played at memorials (a half-speed instrumental version of the anthem is usually used and it’s really quite beautiful).

It’s also sung before international sports matches, and because it is a cracking good song it’s frequently belted out by fans in the stands during the match as a way of urging on les bleus (something that an anthem like God Save the King really doesn’t lend itself to).

What does it sound like?

Fair question, and let’s get it out of the way early. Here’s a YouTube clip of the song.


What’s the song about?

It’s a call to arms – a rousing war song to rally French troops battling foreign armies. It’s meant to incite an uprising against tyranny and invasion.

The lyrics are quite strong, and make for an impressive and combative start to an international sports fixture. 

So what about these lyrics then?

The anthem contains lines about “ferocious soldiers” who are  “coming to cut the throats of your sons, your women”. 

The chorus ends with a call for “impure blood to soak our fields”.

Read the first verse and chorus here. 


What’s the history of the song?

It came about, as the story goes, on this day in 1792 when the mayor of Strasbourg, baron Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich, called for a song to rally France’s soldiers. That very same night, his guest Rouget de Lisle wrote and delivered it. 

Three years later, it was officially passed as the national anthem of France. It has been banned a few times since, notably by Louis XVIII and Charles X, but was reinstated in 1879 and has remained as the national anthem since then.

If it was invented in Strasbourg, shouldn’t it be called the Strasbourgaise?

Great question. The reason it’s called the Marseillaise is because volunteer troops (fédérés) liked to sing it when marching from Marseille to Paris during the French revolution. That’s a march of 750km, by the way, so you can see why they might have needed a pick-me-up.

Have there been other controversies around it?

Of course – did you read those lyrics? Even in recent years some have said the song is no longer appropriate for modern multi-ethnic and peaceful France.

There was a big push in 2014 to change the song, or at least the lyrics. 

“When I hear the words ‘let an impure blood soak our fields’, I am amazed that we continue to sing it,” French actor Lambert Wilson said at the time. 

Various famous French figures from the past have also had issues with the song. Author Victor Hugo, French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, and the singer Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote his own reggae version in 1979, all thought the Marseillaise should be given a makeover.

Does everyone think it’s inappropriate?

Nope. Many people really like it – and will happily argue that there’s nothing wrong with the words. 

“There’s no way the words are racist,” French political expert Jean-Yves Camus told The Local in the past

“They just have to be put in the context of 1792 when France was being besieged by foreign armies. The lyrics are strong, but not racist.”

Lyrics aside, it’s definitely one of the most rousing national anthems out there (although some think Italy’s is better) and hearing 80,000 sports fans belting it out will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

And lastly… How can I sing along if I don’t speak French?

You could try this phonetic guide. 

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For members


Nine of our favourite French words and expressions of the day

From 'Monsieur Dupont' to a 'Flasher', via an unsavoury metaphor involving flies and a word for meat-lovers, here's a roundup of some of our favourite French words and expressions of the day.

Nine of our favourite French words and expressions of the day

Every weekday, The Local publishes a French word or phrase of the day, with the emphasis on slang, sayings, colloquialisms and (sometimes) swearing. Our aim is to introduce readers to the words and phrases that they won’t learn in French class, but they definitely will hear during the course of everyday life in France.

We’ve been publishing a daily word since 2018, so by now we have a fairly hefty back catalogue – you can find it HERE. Members of The Local can also sign up to our Word of the Day mailing list and get each day’s word or phrase delivered straight to your mailbox.

Here’s a selection of the words and phrases we published in January;

1. Monsieur Dupont

You might know someone named Dupont, after all, it’s a fairly common name in France. And, yet, Monsieur Dupont is not always real – in fact the name is frequently used in a metaphorical context to signify an everyman figure, or someone whose identity is not known.

Pronounced: miss-yur doo-ponn 

Learn more about France’s ‘John Doe’ here.

2. Flasher 

You might be curious why French newspapers are writing about the number of “serial flasheurs” on the country’s roads. But it’s not what you think as this word is a classic faux ami (false friend). Flasher in French does not mean – as it does in English – someone who has exposed themselves in public.

In fact it means either taking a photograph, shining a (metaphorical) spotlight on something or falling head-over-heels in love. The photographic meaning is the most common, particularly in reference to being photographed by a speed camera.

Pronounced: flah-shay 

Find out more here.

3. Larguer les amarres

This originally nautical expression now has a less literal meaning to “let go” of something or launch something new. It’s most commonly heard in the context of a new start like moving house or starting a new job, or the end of something – in particular the end of a love affair.

Pronounced: lar-gay lays ah-mahr 

Find out more here.

4. Être bouleversé

If dinosaurs could talk, they may have used this French phrase to describe being hit by the asteroid. The word can be used in both extremely happy and extremely sad situations, to describe being either delighted or devastated by a turn of events.

Perhaps its closest English synonym is ‘bowled over’.

Pronounced eh truh bool vehr say

We explain how to use it here.

5. Enculer les mouches

Enculer les mouches has an extremely crude literal translation but as a phrase is actually not all that offensive (although it’s definitely casual).

In English we might call someone who is very picky over grammar and spelling a ‘pedant’, in French it’s the distinctly more dramatic ‘sodomiser of flies’. Interestingly, French is not the only language to have a very rude phrase for pedants, others include ‘comma fucker’ and ‘little dot shitter’.

Pronounced: ahn koo lay lay moosh 

Learn more here.

6. Viandard

We know that traditional French cuisine is quite meat-heavy and the French love their meat. However viandard has two meanings – the first being simply a person who loves meat, the second being an unscrupulous person who exploits others for gain. The secondary meaning is though to come from the hunting world.

Pronounced: vee-ahn-darr

We explain fully here.

7. Vœux

Vœux is the plural form of the word vœu, and is useful at weddings and other solemn occasions because it means ‘vow’. But the reason we have included it in our January roundup is because at the start of the year it is common for politicians, CEOs and other leaders to make ‘vows’ to their electorate or employees. 

Pronounced: vuh

Learn more here.

8. Amortisseur

This word might be already familiar to you if you are unlucky enough to have car trouble in France – it means shock absorber. But it can also be used in a metaphorical sense to describe a device or plan that cushions the blow or softens the impact, and in 2023 has a very specific meaning relating to electricity bills.

Pronounced: ah-more-tee-zur 

Let us tell you more here.

9. 6h pile

As any dictionary will tell you, the main meaning of the French word pile is a battery. However it can be used to mean “exact” or “sharp” when used to describe a moment in time – so 6h pile means “6am sharp” or “6am on the dot”. It’s also used in several phrases and expressions relating to time.

Pronounced: peel 

Full details here.