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November 24, 2013
France-Ukraine on Tuesday night was more than just a football game: it was also a singing contest. The star of the evening was the ‘Marseillaise’. The ‘official’ version before kick-off was followed by a minimum of six or seven spontaneous intonations during the match, and eventually topped well after the final whistle by Olivier Giroud, when he grasped the stadium speaker’s microphone and invited his teammates to howl yet another one.
The unexpected Marseillaise performance was part of the reconciliation efforts by a team that had been so much criticised for not ‘loving the blue jersey’ and that was longing for redemption. Touching, really.
At the same time, there was something very desperate about this insistent invocation of the national symbol. As if the Marseillaise was the only common language between the players and the public. A function which is no doubt facilitated by the fact that its belligerent lyrics – about ‘impure blood watering the furrows of our soil’ – have become blatantly absurd and carry no concrete meaning any more.
How times have changed! Had Michel Platini’s wonderful team of the 1980s given the same kind of post-match choral performance, they would have ridiculed themselves. In the wake of May 1968, the national symbols cherished by Gaullism were considered old-fashioned by many; the anthem’s lyrics were widely criticised, and Serge Gainsbourg even released a Reggae version called ‘Aux armes et caetera’ – provoking (and probably taking delight in) a polemic with the far-right.
It is not by accident that national symbols had their comeback towards the end of the 1990s, when tendencies of economic and cultural globalisation were perceived as threatening and destabilising. The French World Cup of 1998 may be seen as a turning point – people rediscovered the Marseillaise and you could hear it all over the country during the last ten days of the tournament.
In Germany, where the national anthem, for understandable reasons, had been a taboo for decades, the same rehabilitation took place with a slight delay. When Rudi Völler’s unexpected World Cup finalists came home from Japan and South Korea in 2002, the anthem was sung spontaneously and repeatedly by tens of thousands of people in the streets of Frankfurt. After the third or fourth time, the TV reporter commented ‘That’s one more evidence that we have become a normal country.’
In other words: applied to our contemporary nation-states, ‘normal’ means weak, fragile, unstable. In our age of identity anxieties, the national anthem is, somewhat helplessly, perceived to be one of these ‘anchors’ that one of my recent blogposts spoke about. It provides an illusion of stability in the quicksands of globalisation. It reassures about community belonging in times of permanent uncertainty and blurred boundaries. It resuscitates feelings of unquestioned loyalty to a community of destiny which is no longer one in a society whose socio-economic categories are drifting apart.
It seems like these anthems have a bright future ahead of them. And the French one, which happens to be an irresistible, genuinely brilliant, tune that everybody can shout at the top of their lungs, turns out to be a perfectly suitable chant for the football stadium. At the Brazil World Cup, the French team may not be on the level of the Spanish, German or Brazilian one, but the Marseillaise is not far from being the World Champion of anthems.