Lyrics to 'La Marseillaise' prompt move to revise and to preserve

March 08, 1992|By Alan Riding | Alan Riding,New York Times News Service

PARIS -- If a stirring rendition of its national anthem is a good antidote for a country with the blues, is this the moment for a malaise-gripped France to tamper with "La Marseillaise"?

On the other hand, in these days of expanding European brotherhood, should French patriots still bellow out their threat to "drench our fields" in the "tainted blood" of foreigners?

Debates of this kind are not taken lightly in France.

A confrontation is arising between France's need to evoke its past revolutionary glory and its desire to be seen as a cradle of human rights and political correctness.

The idea of rewriting "La Marseillaise" caught on after a 10-year-old girl sang its fiery lyrics it at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Albertville last month.

Now, 100 prominent citizens, including France's first lady, Danielle Mitterrand, say that they want to hear about liberty, equality and fraternity but not about foreigners cutting the throats of "sons, wives and kin."

A competition to find new words for the anthem is being planned.

But defenders of "La Marseillaise" are myriad, and they are mobilizing to the familiar cry -- "Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vos bataillons!" ("To arms, citizens! Bring up your battalions!") -- to make sure that nothing is touched.

A right-wing former security minister, Robert Panraud, has already formed a Committee for the Defense of the Marseillaise.

Other voices -- on the left and right alike -- have warned darkly against dismantling this symbol of French nationhood. One poll found that 40 percent of the public agreed that the lyrics are bloody -- but that only 25 percent favored changing them.

President Francois Mitterrand has not yet given his opinion, but traditionalists probably have the edge.

It certainly would be odd to mark the 200th anniversary of the composition of the anthem on April 24 by changing its words.

And perhaps its emotional message still is relevant.

Capt. Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle wrote "La Marseillaise" to rally French troops to fight off Prussian invaders.

Today, for the self-doubting French, word that "le jour de gloire" -- the day of glory -- has arrived could be what they most want to hear.

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