In 1982, French Minister of Culture Jack Lang created la Fête de la Musique, an annual celebration that encourages both amateur and professional musicians to play in the streets and in public spaces. The festival was such a success that it’s now celebrated in over 700 cities and 120 countries on June 21st. This year’s festival will be a bit different because of the pandemic, with strict health protocols in place.
If you’d like to celebrate la Fête de la Musique on Sunday at home, check out MakeMusicNewYork streaming lineup. You can also celebrate à la maison by listening to our list of the best French protest songs. While you’ve probably heard France’s most famous chanson de révolte, “La Marseillaise,” now is the perfect time to learn more about the country’s rich revolutionary culture by listening to other celebrated examples. And in case you missed it, check out our last post about the protests for racial justice that are taking place in France and around the world right now, in solidarity with the situation in the US.
By Sophia Millman
“Le Chant des Partisans” (1943)
The most famous French Resistance song, “Le Chant des Partisans” (nicknamed “La Marseillaise de la Libération”) remains extremely popular in France and is often played at official ceremonies. Written by Anna Marly, a Russian expatriate, in 1941, the lyrics evoked the struggle of the civilian population against the German army. In 1942, the song was chosen by André Gillois, a Resistance fighter and radio host, as the theme song for his program Honneur et Patrie. The song was whistled and sung by Resistance fighters throughout France, and continues to serve as a powerful symbol of resistance today. Countless artists have covered the song, including Yves Montand, Johnny Halliday, and Leonard Cohen.
Boris Vian: “Le Déserteur” (1954)
Composed near the end of the First Indochina War and the beginning of the Algerian War, Boris Vian’s “Le Déserteur” was released at a particularly thorny moment in French history. Its anti-militarist lyrics created an uproar and the song was quickly censored in France. Any French soldiers caught singing or humming the song were sent to prison for several weeks. Covered by several American artists in the early 1960s, including Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, the song later became a symbol for the anti-Vietnam movement. Now famous for promoting pacifism, the song is often heard during French protests. In 1991, the government censored Renaud’s version of the song, which he released before the French entered the Gulf War.
George Moustaki: “Le métèque” (1969)
The word “métèque” is a French insult that became common in the 19th century. Extreme right-wing politicians used it to refer to foreigners whom they considered “enemies of the nation.” In the 20th century, “métèque” was specifically used to describe Middle Eastern and North African immigrants. In Moustaki’s song, he embraced the word, calling himself a “dirty Jew.” By applying a variety of pejoratives to himself, he was able to reclaim these traditionally derogatory words, fighting against the way they were directed at immigrants. The song has influenced many French musicians, including Renaud and Joey Starr.
Georges Brassens: “La Mauvaise Réputation” (1972)
“La Mauvaise Réputation” was censored during the 1950s for its anti-conformist lyrics. The song is about a resident of a small French village who doesn’t want to participate in nationalistic celebrations like the Bastille Day parade and generally refuses to do what society expects of him, preferring to think for himself. We also recommend listening to “Mourir pour des idées,” which featured on our Top 9 Songs of the 1970s playlist, and contains an anti-militarist message. If you’re interested in learning more about Brassens’ beliefs, we recommend reading this excellent French analysis of his songs that was recently published in Le Monde.
Serge Gainsbourg: “Aux armes et cætera” (1979)
Gainsbourg recorded his album Aux armes armes et cætera in Jamaica, and decided to set the lyrics of “La Marseillaise” to a reggae rhythm for the album’s title track. This decision to rework France’s national anthem proved extremely provocative. When the song was released, one conservative French critic called the song a “desecration of the most sacred thing we have.” In 1980, Gainsbourg was forced to call off a concert after its venue was blocked by paratroopers. In front of the paratroopers and an enormous crowd, he sang the opening lyrics of “La Marseillaise” and declared that he was restoring the song’s initial meaning. You can watch this cult moment here.
France Gall: “Résiste” (1981)
Written by Michel Berger, this feminist and revolutionary hymn is about resisting the powerful social forces in your life. The song features in Alain Resnais’s excellent film On connaît la chanson. It also inspired France Gall’s 2015-2016 musical Résiste.
Supreme NTM: “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend” (1995)
NTM is the French answer to Public Enemy and NWA (see La police, France’s very own Fuck tha Police). Anticipating the 2005 banlieues riots by a decade, this song’s powerful lyrics ask why we are waiting rather than taking action: “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour foutre le feu… Unissons-nous pour incinérer ce système” (“What are we waiting for to start a fire… Let’s unite to burn this system down”).
IAM: “L’empire du côté obscur” (1997)
This song is the lead single off L’école du micro d’argent, arguably the best French hip hop album of all time (it was partly recorded in New York, with help from members of the Wu-Tang Clan). Cloaking their lyrics in Star Wars references, IAM denounces the French system that stigmatizes the suburbs and rewards only the privileged. Here, the Dark Side of the Force represents the uncomfortable truths about French society which have been kept hidden for too long and which IAM is determined to call out.
Tryo: “L’hymne de nos campagnes” (1998)
“If you were born in a housing project / I dedicate this poem to you…” begin the lyrics of this famous chanson engagée. Tryo’s first big hit, “L’hymne de nos campagnes,” remains the group’s anthem and a plea for environmentalism and respecting the natural world. The group recorded a new version in 2019 with Claudio Capéo. We also recommend the group’s song “Charlie,” written after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Keny Arkana: “La rage” (2006)
Arkana’s song is about “La Rage du peuple,” an urban social movement that began in Marseille. The movement became famous at the national level during the riots that took place in working-class French neighborhoods in November 2005. In the first week of the riots, La Rage called for collective organization to respond to social, political, and police violence.
Diam’s: “Ma France à moi” (2006)
Rapper Diam’s directly attacked the Front National’s views in her 2006 album Dans ma bulle. “Ma France à moi” conveys Diam’s anger and frustration at France’s political hypocrisy. The song’s lyrics denounce racial discrimination and explore issues that marginalized suburban youth face in France. We also recommend listening to Diam’s 2004 song “Marine,” in which she challenges Marine Le Pen’s political choices.
Aya Nakamura: “Djadja” (2018)
A black feminist anthem, Nakamura’s song “Djadja” was constantly playing on the radio in France in 2019. We also recommend listening to Angèle’s “Balance Ton Quoi,” a protest song she wrote during the #Balancetonporc movement (the French #MeToo). Both songs feature on our Top Songs of the 2010s post.
Pour aller plus loin:
- “L’internationale” (1871) – A famous left-wing anthem sung by anarchists, communists, and socialists.
- “Le temps des cerises” (1868) – The revolutionary “Time of Cherries” is about what life will be like after a great social upheaval.
- Daniel Balavoine: “L’Aziza” (1985) – Balavoine wrote “L’Aziza” in response to his frustration at the growing popularity of the far-right National Front. It features on our Top Songs of the 1980s playlist!
- Noir Désir: “Un jour en France” (1996) – This song’s lyrics paint a dire portrait of 1990s French society, focusing on corruption, the oil crisis, fascism, and societal oppression. An iconic French rock band of the 90’s known for their many chansons de révolte, Noir Désir’s legacy has however been considered problematic since lead singer Bertrand Cantat’s high-profile 2003 murder conviction.
- Tiken Jah Fakoly: “Quitte le pouvoir” (2010) – Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, who calls himself “the voice of the voiceless,” wrote this song in 2010 after the presidential elections in Ivory Coast. In it, he asked Laurent Gbagbo to “admit defeat and leave power,” allowing democratically elected Alassane Ouattara to become president.