les chemins des dames

Le 14 Juillet (AKA, not “Bastille Day)

On the 14th of July 1789, in the midst of the French Revolution (also refered to by the same name in French, even though we had quite a few of those), rioters attacked the Bastille prison and freed the (7) prisoners that were inside. That prison was a relique of the Ancient Regime, that ended officially three years later with the 1st Republic (September 21th 1792).

Basically, the French Revolution was a very complex period, in which many many things happened, not that historians really agree on what happened exactly (each carrying their own political views and agenda, including me).

In France, this period marks the beginning of the contemporary period (after antiquity, middle-age & modern times) in history, it was a rich period in terms of political, economical, cultural, scientific, social progress.

What we call “La prise de la Bastille” (the Storming of the Bastille) became a symbol, but the event in itself isn’t the most significant, by far.

For example, women walked on Versailles demanding bread, but really, riots broke out everywhere, we had lots of beheading (including that of the then king Louis the 16th), let’s not forget the Reign of Terror, that was fun. The most significant event in my opinion was probably the Abolition of the Privileges (August 4th 1789) & the Abolition of Slavery (February 4th 1794, which was unfortunately restaured by Napoleon in 1802).

A year after the Storming of the Bastille, on July 14th 1790, there was a celebration, called la Fête de la Fédération, meant to emphasize the importance of citizenship, of civil value, now that royalty & religion were no longer there for the people to put their faith and trust in (that’s not exactly accurate, but without getting into details, that’s pretty much it).

In 1880, the 14th of July was officially adopted as the annual national holiday, meant as a military event. To this day, people still argue over which day our National Holiday is supposed to be referring to.

Bottom line, it’s supposed to be a symbol of citizenship & freedom and a reminder of the past. Our 19th century was full of revolutions and we had many uprisings before that (les Révoltes paysannes AKA Jacqueries, where people would rise up against taxes for the most part, with degrees of success between the 14th & the 18th century).

One of those revolutions was used to plant the scene to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (June 1832), though it’s probably more fair to call it an uprising, as its success was fairly limited.

To this day, we are known as the country of strikes, social rights (& laziness apparently?) and our history is filled with riots, uprising, demonstrations, protests, strikes which continue to this day.

This history is kept alive, partly with songs, only one of which can be found in Les Misérables… and was cut in the movie. It’s called la Faute à Voltaire, sung by Gavroche.

Here is a list of proeminent revolutionnary songs, with links to good audio versions with lyrics on youtube:

La carmagnole (1792) : Every child knows at least the part about Marie-Antoinette: “Madam’ Veto (Marie-Antoinette) promessed to slaughter all Paris, but she missed her shot, thanks to our gunners. Let’s dance the carmagnole, hail the sound of gun barrel”.

La Marseillaise (1792) : The national hymn, the long version has 8 verses.

Ah ! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira (1790) : A very famous song sung during the revolution, the lyrics literally say “We will hang the aristocrats”.

Le chant des cerises (1867) : A beautiful song strongly associated with the Paris Commune (1871). It’s still sung by new artists or during demos to this day.

La semaine sanglante (1871) : At the end of the Paris Commune, over 30 000 people were slaughtered in a week (the story goes they killed everyone they came across in the street that had gunpower on them, so basically everyone), over a thousand people were sent to trial, many of which ended up in forced labor in Cayenne often to die there. The song has seven verse, one for each day of the week of the massacre, describing life after the Commune. It’s still sung in the face of police violence during protests.

La chanson du Père Duschène (1892) : An anti-clerical anarchist song, sung by Ravachol as he went to his execution. The song advises “if you want to be happy, in the name of god, hang your landlord”.

Les enfants de Cayenne (1900-ish) : The most emblamatic song against the police & prison. It had been completely forgotten until was dug up by punks musicians about 30 years ago, so I don’t have a nice version to share. The lyrics go “Death to prison guards, death to cops”, except with slurs.

La chanson de Craonne (1917) : A beautiful song sung by the mutineers of le Chemin des Dames during WWI, the soldiers were sent to slaughter & at some point they refused to go on. It’s heart-breaking, the lyrics go : “Good-bye life, good-bye love, good-bye to all women, it’s really over and forever, this atrocious war”. Desertion & mutiny been synonymous with a death sentence, choosing a death with meaning is somewhat shown as dignity restaured.

La Butte Rouge (1925) : Another song against war (in general, but it highly refers to WWI). It’s about a place (a hill) where soldiers where killed, but time passed, people forgot what happened there and moved on, while the singer will never forget.

Le Chant des partisans (1941) : The hymn of the French Resistance during WWII, literally the rallying song. Everyone knows it, it’s sung at memorials every year, also sometimes during demonstrations, kids learn it at school : “We are the one who break the bars of our brother’s prisons”.

Le Chant des Marais (1933) : Originally sung in German, wrote & sung by prisoners in concentration camps. It’s also one of the most well-known songs about WWII, sung at every memorials, many learn it at school. It’s sad and beautiful. There is also an English version, though the lyrics aren’t exactly the same (x).

I might do a follow-up with more songs, either old or more recent, if anyone is interested.

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