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Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. As seen here, men can lose their pants when they are led by a woman with a relaxed sartorial attitude.

 

It’s the Fourteenth of July today, the anniversary of the French Revolution and, traditionally, the day of flag-waving, of a military parade on the Champs Elysées, and of public celebration. Somewhere between the celebratory speeches and the all-night partying, La Marseillaise will be played and sung with hearty enthusiasm or at least with a respectful attitude.

It is safe to say that there never was a song with more power to arouse the enthusiasm of the masses. Napoleon did not like to hear it after he proclaimed himself the Emperor, and the rabble-rousing song was outright forbidden under the monarchs who followed him on the French throne.  Despite that, it was publicly sung in 1830, in 1848, and in 1871 as revolution followed revolution.

 

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The 1848 revolution painted by Alphonse de Lamartine

 

La Marseillaise was officially resuscitated by Napoleon III when he needed to motivate his troops during the Franco-Prussian War. The song alone could not save France from a thrashing by the Germans, but it was adopted as the national anthem soon after the fall of The Second Empire.  It is, by any measure, a bloodthirsty set of lyrics, but there had been in France a thin line between refinement and brutality as we have seen in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune.

 

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Public executions during the Paris Commune in 1871

 

However, there is something not quite right about the lyrics.  Let’s see if you agree (see also the video below):

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny
Raises its bloody banner
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons and women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conjured kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons?
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage!
What fury must it arouse!
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors!
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke
Vile despots would have themselves
The masters of our destinies!
To arms, citizens…

Have you read carefully? Strange, indeed. The Children of the Fatherland are supposed to march against foreign cohorts who would make law in the French homes if such a terrible thing would have been allowed. Is that a call to revolution?

Of course not. To begin with, La Marseillaise did not originate in Marseille. It was born in Strasbourg as a war song for the Rhine Army and the author, Rouget de Lisle, was a Royalist.

 

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Original score of the War Song for the Army of the Rhine (1792)

 

We in are April 25, 1792, and Rouget de Lisle is dining at the table of his friend Baron Dietrich. France has declared war against Austria and the talk is about patriotism. Dietrich is outraged that the French army does not yet have a hymn worthy of her name. Something is needed to rouse the troops, a song with a mustache, n’est ce-pas? All heads turn to Rouget de Lisle, who is known for his literary and musical abilities. Lightened with wine, Rouget agrees to write the song.

On his way home, he regrets the rash promise. What does he know about war songs? He is into nature and romance stuff. As he walks the streets of Strasbourg he does notice placard posters on the walls.

“To arms, citizens!” they shout.  “The banner of war is displayed! To arms! We must fight, defeat, or die. If we persist in being free, all the powers of Europe will see their sinful plots fail. Let them tremble, these crowned despots! The splendor of Liberty belongs to all men. You will prove worthy children of Liberty! Run to Victory! Defeat the armies of the despots!”

Rouget de Lisle sees this as a formidable source of inspiration for the song he is about to compose. He does not hesitate to seize whole sentences of the poster. To diversify his sources, he also opens a collection of poems by Boileau and shamelessly copies some verses from the illustrious poet. As for the opening phrase of his song, “Let’s go, children of the fatherland,” he does not go far to look for it either as he belongs to the battalion nicknamed “Les Enfants de la Patrie”.

One would think that Rouget de Lisle at least composed the music. Wrong again. A friend of his, who was also present at the famous dinner at Dietrich’s, a certain Ignace Pleyel, set the words to music. Not that he should be celebrated for his contribution because he stole the score of La Marche d’Ahasuerus, a piece composed by Lucien Grisons, some years previously. Thus, by the deed of triple plagiarism, was born the French anthem.

 

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Auguste Pinelli: Rouget de Lisle Composing the Marseillaise, 1878

 

The success of the song was immediate. Without delay, the lyrics and score were printed and distributed to the soldiers. A few copies of this print run were scattered all over France and landed by chance in Marseille. The song immediately pleased the Marseille’s revolutionaries who were preparing to march on Paris. And here was an enormous band of rugged Southerners singing at the top of their voices the hymn of Rouget de Lisle in the streets of Paris, even though this one was destined to be sung on the Austrian battlefields.

Ironically—and history is loaded with this type of irony—Rouget de Lisle barely escaped the guillotine because of his blue blood. He was released from prison after Robespierre’s execution which marked the end of the Terror. It is also of note that, with the exception of Russia, other European countries achieved Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in a much calmer manner and without shedding the blood of their aristocrats.

You can hear an excellent rendition of La Marseillaise here:

 

Related post:

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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winterhalterEver since she became an empress, Eugenie de Montijo feared Queen Marie-Antoinette’s fate. She was right to feel uneasy. Eighteen years into the reign and some eighty years after Marie-Antoinette’s head was severed under the guillotine, Eugenie ran in terror through the streets of Paris with a mob at her heels. The year was 1870 and the only friend the French empress found in her distress was her American dentist.

Eugenie doesn’t deserve her lack of fame. Who doesn’t know Marie-Antoinette and her horrible end? Who has never heard of Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I? Both are legendary figures of the French history. One was executed; the other had to agree to a divorce. That the French had two more empresses, Marie-Louise and Eugenie, is a lesser known fact. Marie-Louise’s contribution to the French history was reduced to giving Napoleon his only legitimate heir, an heir that Josephine was unable to provide.  After the fall of the First Empire, Marie-Louise and her little son (who might have ruled as Napoleon II had he not died in the exile) went to live in her native Austria and neither saw France again.

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Napoleon III

With the Bonaparte family banished from the country, France went through two Bourbon kings and two revolutions to become, again, a republic. After 34 years in the exile, the Bonapartes were back, this time headed by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I. His four-year stint as an elected French president ended in 1852 with a coup d’état when he took what he considered rightfully his: the imperial crown. Henceforth, he was known as Napoleon III.

Generally, the French don’t like Napoleon III. They call him Napoleon le Petit and they say that he did nothing for the glory of France. They seem not to notice that their glorious Napoleon I turned Europe into a battlefield where he sacrificed an entire generation of Frenchmen and caused untold misery to people all over the continent from Spain to Russia. His nephew, on the contrary, was an achiever of another sort. Under his 18-year rule, France conquered the world with her culture and industry. He was the builder of Paris as we know it today, with the wide avenues and sanitary underbelly. He was a modern man in every sense and he truly cared for his people’s well-being.

Fortunately, the new emperor was a bachelor and he could hope to find a bride of royal blood to solidify his lofty position.  Unfortunately, he was also the slave of his hormones. While his emissaries were shopping for a suitable bride among the reluctant royal families of Europe—they all still smarted from the consequences of his uncle’s conquests—Napoleon III met the woman of his life and she was not a royal.

Even though Eugenie de Montijo was a stunning beauty, she would never have made the history books had she been only one of Louis Napoleon’s easy conquests. Let’s say it right here:  the man had a long list of bedroom adventures although he wasn’t averse to having sex in any other room, in any stationary or moving vehicle, or even in a haystack –  standing, sitting or laying down.  His sexual appetite was legendary and sometimes embarrassingly noticeable. His Majesty the Empereur was renamed by his sneering courtiers His Majesty the Ampleur.

In Eugenie he found a fortress to be conquered. The rules were laid down very early after the two met.  He was still the Prince-President of the French Republic, she the 26-year-old daughter of a widowed Spanish countess. He invited the two women for a weekend in a country chateau. As he was returning from a horse ride, he spotted Eugenie at one of the numerous windows. Not knowing the exact layout of the building, he called: “How do I get to you?” “Through the chapel, Sire,” she answered.

The siege of Eugenie lasted eleven months before her would-be-conqueror declared defeat. By that time France had, once again, become an empire with Louis Napoleon on the throne. Everyone, especially his family, expected him to do his duty by marrying a virginal princess. Instead, he presented them with a Spanish adventuress of dubious virtue. They were furious.  “But I love her,” he said simply.

Eugenie’s extraordinary resistance to seduction was explained during the wedding night.  She had no appetite for physical love. “Sex? Quelle saleté!” (Sex? What filth!) she was heard saying the next morning. Despite his wife’s attitude, the emperor remained faithful to her for a period of six months before he returned to his old habits. That did not sit well with the new empress. She was very particular about her possessions and she would make a scene for a displaced pillow let alone for a displaced husband. The household was soon aware of her displeasure, most of all the emperor, who was forbidden access to the marital bed. But the pair had to produce an heir. A truce followed during which the task was accomplished. A lovely baby boy was born and given the title Prince Impérial. There were no other children. For the rest of the Napoleon III’s reign, the easily virtuous Eugenie presided over one of the most debauched courts in history, a court where adultery was the norm and a one-night stand with the emperor a badge of honor.

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The Second Empire court at its zenith. A soiree at the Tuileries, 1867

By now the reader has reached the opinion that Eugenie was a gold-digger with a block of ice where her heart ought to have been. That is incorrect. Most of her life was spent in serious charitable endeavors. An early feminist, she was pushing for female education and advocating the recognition of women’s achievements in literature, arts, and education. That her efforts were largely unsuccessful was the fault of the society she lived in. The reforms she championed came too early.

As an empress, Eugenie was without reproach. Always courteous and elegant, she represented her country admirably, whether at home or abroad. Queen Victoria, favorably impressed, quickly became Eugenie’s intimate friend. Politically, Eugenie certainly had an influence on the emperor, especially when he was weakened by a disease in the last years of his reign.  The Bonapartes had many enemies; the most influential among them was the ultra republican Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables. Acting from his exile, he bombarded the imperial pair with insulting pamphlets.  The mud stuck and Eugenie was blamed for everything that went wrong. Like Marie Antoinette, she was foreign and foreign queens were suspected of spying for their homeland and generally wishing ill to the French people.

The declaration of war on Prussia and the consequent debacle were entirely laid at her feet. While her husband, suffering from a debilitating pain, eagerly sought honorable death on the battlefield before surrendering to Bismarck, Eugenie refused to shoot into an angry mob that surrounded the imperial palace.  She chose to flee.  Alone, she tried several addresses before help was offered.  Her savior was Dr. Evans, her American dentist. The pair sneaked off to the coast where the empress, in strict incognito, boarded a ship for England.  As for Dr. Evans, he dined on the story for the rest of his life.

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The widowed Eugenie and her son in a Tissot’s painting, 1878

After the emperor’s comfortable imprisonment in the newly formed German Empire, the family is reunited in Camden Place, Chislehurst, southeast of London, to begin a life in the exile.  A plan for regaining his throne is certainly in the making when the emperor dies. From then on, Eugenie lives entirely for her son’s future. Not long after, tragedy strikes again: the prince, engaged in the war with the Zulus in South Africa, is slain by the savages.

The news makes the round of the planet. That his mother is devastated is understandable. oldBut the prince’s death crushed the hopes of numerous Bonapartists. It was generally understood that should the handsome prince claim the imperial crown it would be his for the taking. The grief in France could be compared to the one felt by the British when Princess Diana succumbed after the car accident. Husbandless and childless, Eugenie drags her sorrow through the rest of her long life. She dies in 1920 at the age of ninety-four.

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The Guide to Gay Paree 1869

How Germany Was Born in France

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