‘The most bloodthirsty line in the French national anthem was written with the English in mind,’ David Bell wrote in the LRB in 1998. Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the military engineer who composed the words to the ‘Marseillaise’ in 1792, took the line about watering furrows with ‘sang impur’ from a poem which was much more specific about whose impure blood it should be.
In 1998, Jean-Marie Le Pen complained not only about the ethnic makeup of France’s World Cup winning football team, but also about players who were shy, unenthusiastic or silent as the camera panned past them during the singing of the national anthem before kick-off. They weren’t really Frenchmen, Le Pen claimed. In 2013, the Front National called Karim Benzema, a French-born forward of Algerian heritage, a ‘football mercenary who earns €1484 per hour’ for not singing.
As the crowd left the Stade de France after the attacks on Friday night, some of them were singing the ‘Marseillaise’. The German squad took shelter in their dressing room; the French team stayed with them – an ‘outstanding gesture of camaraderie’, according to the acting president of the German Football Association. The French FA then decided that last night’s friendly with England should go ahead as a gesture of defiance, though it would be up to individual players whether they wanted to be included in the squad. They all did, including Antoine Griezmann, whose sister survived the Bataclan concert hall massacre, and Lassana Diarra, whose cousin was killed.
On Saturday afternoon, the French journalist Philippe Auclair tweeted: ‘France will play at Wembley on Tuesday. Good. To my English friends, if you wish to join us to sing La Marseillaise’. The English FA announced that the words would be shown on big screens at the stadium, and English fans encouraged to join in. The Mirror and the Sun printed the lyrics over billowing tricolours on their sports pages.
On Monday night, the ex-MI6 chief Sir John Sawers was asked on Channel 4 News about the chances of an attack on British soil. ‘No goalkeeper has a 100 per cent record,’ he said, not very reassuringly.
The most frightening thing about the game was the presence of armed police in the car park. The atmosphere got steadily calmer on the way into the stadium. The flags of both sides were warmly applauded, the teams stood arm-in-arm, David Cameron and Prince William came onto the pitch to place wreaths. The singing of the ‘Marseillaise’ was more thrilling than the match itself: 71,223 of Wembley’s 90,000 seats were taken, and everyone was doing their best to mumble along. The East stand – the largest concentration of home fans – had been given tricolour cards to hold up as we sang. During the minute’s silence which followed, the only sound came from the helicopters circling overhead.
After the whistle, normal behaviour soon resumed. A chant of ‘stand up if you hate ISIS’ – which had apparently been sung at Portsmouth over the weekend to the tune of ‘stand up for the Eng-er-land’ – turned back into the original as it made its way round the stadium. My neighbours chanted ‘Come on England’, asked around for cigarettes and called Wayne Rooney a fat ginger prick (before he scored). The coloured cards rained down onto the pitch as paper aeroplanes or scrunched into balls. By the end of the first half there was a ragged band of bleu-blanc-rouge between the advertising hoarding and the French goalkeeper’s touchline.
By the time England had won 2-0, news was filtering in of a scare at a stadium in Germany. But the distance between the composition of the ‘Marseillaise’ and the way it was performed tonight seemed like a promise that intractable hatreds can come to an end. Or perhaps they are only redirected. During the Second Empire, Napoleon III banned the ‘Marseillaise’. The song that temporarily took its place was a crusading hymn called ‘Partant pour la Syrie’.