Fifty Years of French Protest Songs

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Alban Bargain-Villéger

George Brassens – Micetto

It all happened sometime in late March 2003, during the first days of the invasion of Iraq. My then-roommate and I were watching CNN’s coverage of the Battle of Nasiriyah in our Vancouver living-room, when my friend suddenly decided to break the silence that had been reigning for about fifteen minutes. “I’m telling you, dude, there’s going to be a slew of protest songs, like in the 1960s and 1970s. All of those Kitsilano hippies must be loving it!” This observation was prophetic, as this discussion took place about a year and a half before the release of Green Day’s seminal American Idiot.

However, my friend was overly dismissive when I suggested that there existed a certain continuity, as far as protest songs were concerned, between the 1960s and the present, whether in America or in Europe. In his opinion, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” (1980) and “Born in the USA” (1984) did not really express a rejection of the established order – to which I replied that I begged to differ. Granted, he had never listened to the Ramones’ 1985 “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg (My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down),” which mocked Ronald Reagan’s visit to Kolmeshöhe cemetary, in Bitburg, Germany, where several Waffen-SS members were buried; however, examples are not exactly lacking. In addition, my roommate showed himself even more antagonistic when I stated that the Right also had a long tradition of protest songs. He was also mistaken in that regard, as the Left has never enjoyed a monopoly over that particular genre.

The history of protest songs in France provides a good example, both of the prominence of this musical genre from the 1960s onwards, and of its less publicized use by rightwing artists. The socialist, communist, or anarchist Lefts have never experienced a dearth of politicized songwriters and musicians. The Cold War context, the painful, protracted decolonization of the French Empire, the growing regionalist movement, and, last but not least, changes in the musical industry, provided a fertile ground for the proliferation of protest songs in the 1960s-70s. Although the Americanization/Anglicization of Western Europe in the decades that followed the Second World War greatly contributed to the popularization of now quasi-deified figures such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Leonard Cohen, several politically inclined songwriters had emerged long before the aforementioned artists had any impact on the French musical scene. Most notably, the free-thinking, somewhat anarchist Georges Brassens caused several scandals by regularly insulting the Catholic Church (and, implicitly, all forms of organized religion), the military, the justice system, and other institutions from the early 1950s to his death in 1981. His first album, entitled La Mauvaise réputation (1952), included “Le Gorille,” which told the story of a judge raped by a gorilla after falling into a pit at the zoo. While the song might seem gratuitously crude at first, the final lines give it its reason for being – that of a plea against the death penalty:

For the judge, at the supreme moment
Screamed “Mommy!”, crying a river,
Like the man whose head, that very day,
He had ordered be cut off.
Beware the Gorilla![1]

Needless to say, “Le Gorille” was censored and not played on the radio until 1955.

Jean Ferrat – Qobuz

While Brassens had only contempt for political organizations, Jean Ferrat made no secret of his communist sympathies – though he never adhered to the French Communist Party (PCF). Although, unlike Brassens, he only rarely resorted to saucy images, Ferrat regularly made waves by openly praising communism. Almost all of his albums include songs glorifying past revolutionary events – “Potemkine” (1965), “La Commune” (1971) – or diatribes against conservative politicians and intellectuals – “Un jeune” (1975), “Un air de liberté” (1975). Although he never directly praised the USSR, he explicitly showed his admiration for Fidel Castro’s regime in his 1967 album, entitled À Santiago – the songs “Cuba si” and “Les Guérilleros” are, in that regard, unambiguous. Ferrat also set several of Louis Aragon’s poems to music. A World War Two resistance fighter and one of the PCF’s most prominent intellectuals, Aragon was for most of his life a staunch defender of the Soviet regime, and the poems which Ferrat chose to record all have highly political contents – “Un jour, un jour” (1967), “Les Poètes” (1969). However, Ferrat distanced himself from the PCF after the Warsaw Pact’s repression of the 1968 Prague Spring. His song “Camarade” (1969) unarguably contradicted the party’s blind, shameful support for Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR:

It’s a terrible word, Comrade,
It’s a terrible word to say
When, in the course of a masquerade,
All it does is shudder.
What are you doing, Comrade?
What are you doing here?
It was at 5:00 am in Prague
That the August skies darkened,
Comrade… Comrade

The message is not exactly arcane here.

The French tradition of protest songs did not lose steam in the 1980s, as older artists, like Ferrat, the radical leftist blueswoman Colette Magny, and the avowedly anarchist Léo Ferré remained active during that period. In addition to these, a new generation of artists had also emerged of the dark, crisis-ridden 1970s. Renaud, a product of the 1968 Revolution, and the more marginal Bérurier noir took up their elders’ antimilitaristic, anticlerical crusade. Like their predecessors, they had to face attempts to censor their work, and found themselves at the centre of controversy. Renaud’s “La médaille,” (1994) in which he referred to some unnamed Marshals of France as “murderers,” earned him a lawsuit from the ASAF (Association de soutien à l’armée française – Association for the support of the French Army), and Bérurier noir’s inflammatory lyrics and anarchist sympathies caught the attention of the police after a group named Black War claimed the April 1988 bombing of an administrative building. Fortunately, Renaud was eventually acquitted and Bérurier noir no longer suspected of aiding and abetting terrorist actions. One of France’s first major punk bands (along with Stalag), Bérurier noir also became famous for its anti-Front national song entitled “Porcherie,” whose final line (in live performances) “[l]a jeunesse emmerde le Front national” (“The youth says ‘fuck you’ to the National Front”) is to this day the closest thing to an anthem at radical and anarchist and generally leftwing rallies.

But the period stretching from (roughly) 1945 to 1989 also saw the emergence of several, albeit not as numerous, rightwing singer-songwriters. Here, one should distinguish generally conservative artists (Johnny Halliday, Patrick Bruel, Françoise Hardy, or Line Renaud) from those who have been wearing their politics on their sleeves, like Michel Sardou or Serge Lama. It is also paramount not to lump the latter with the proponents of ultranationalist, traditionalist, and authoritarian ideas. Among these, Jean-Pax Méfret is notable for his staying power. Born in French Algeria in 1944, Méfret had to leave for France in the wake of the Algerian War (1954-62). Like many other Pieds-Noirs (Black Feet is the name given to the former European settlers in Algeria, Morocco, or Tunisia), he has harboured a strong nostalgia for what he feels is his true homeland. Nevertheless, Méfret’s songs do not confine themselves to reflecting his longing for Algeria, as they unmistakably take generally pro-imperialistic, pro-militaristic, or nationalistic stances. Most notably, his “Hymne des Pieds-noirs” (1968) and “Le loup de guerre” (1980) display an unabashed admiration for France’s colonial past (and present). Despite his limited presence in the mainstream media, Méfret regularly fills concert halls and enjoys a certain cult following, mostly in far-right circles.

Also on the right of the spectrum, but certainly not as reactionary and far more popular than Méfret, Michel Sardou has consistently attacked leftwing intellectuals and politicians for their anti-Americanism – “Les Ricains” (1967) – or their alleged Bolshevik tendencies – “Vladimir Ilitch” (1983). Although some of his songs do not register as pure protest songs, as they side with the powers-that-be, they do have trappings similar to those of oppositional ones. Among his pro-status quo songs, “Je suis pour” (1976) is one of the most virulent. “Je suis pour,” which came out in the context of the high-profile Patrick Henry murder trial, argues for the maintenance of the death penalty. The song elicited strong reactions, especially on the Left, as it came out at a time of high polarization between opponents and proponents of the death penalty – which was abolished in 1981, after François Mitterrand was elected President. More than Sardou’s stance itself, it was certainly the violent, bloodthirsty nature of the lyrics that sparked the controversy:

You robbed me of my child,
Shed the blood of my blood.
No God can appease me.
I shall have your head! You shall perish!
Both compassion and fear
You have ripped from my heart.
You no longer need a lawyer.
I shall have your head! You shall perish!

Sardou’s subsequent albums were slightly more politically correct, though still resolutely conservative – “Les Deux Écoles” (1984), against the Socialist government’s project to further secularize the educational system – and sometimes speckled with populist, borderline racist, outbursts – “Ils ont le pétrole, mais c’est tout” (1979).

However, artists of Méfret’s and Sardou’s ilk have been less prominent since the end of the Cold War. As for the neo-fascist punk and black metal scenes, they have remained peripheral, underground phenomena. The 1990s was marked by the popularization of politically active rap and pop/rock artists. Among the most notable rap bands, IAM, Assassin, and NTM have repeatedly warned their audiences of the rise of the Front national and emphasized the need for deghettoization and, more generally, social justice. Twenty years after its release, the Marseille-based IAM’s “L’Empire du Côté Obscur” (1997) sounds frighteningly prophetic, as it describes, by allegorizing the Star Wars saga, the Front national’s progress in their hometown and region.

About six months before the release of “L’Empire du Côté Obscur,” Noir Désir’s “Un jour en France” – one of the musically and lyrically brilliant 666.667 Club’s big hits – had also noted the growing popularity of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s party, now enjoying the support of “a few quasi-fascists amounting to approximately 15%.” But the band, which did not conceal its sympathies for the peripheral but then-promising Trotskyist LCR (Ligue communiste révolutionnaire), also vilified the EU’s neoliberal policies. Worthy of note is also the inclusion, in “Un jour en France,” of a reference to Charlie Hebdo’s petition for the outlawing of the Front national – another example (among many others) that contradicts the many accusations (mostly in the British, American, and Canadian press) that the weekly held profoundly racist views.

Finally, this post would not be complete without a mention of Zebda’s “Le bruit et l’odeur” (1995), whose title sarcastically refers to the freshly elected Jacques Chirac’s racist comments on “the noise and smell” allegedly coming out of immigrant families’ households, and of Les Wampas’ incendiary “Chirac en prison” (2006), calling for the conviction of the then-President of France for misappropriation of funds and untrustworthiness.

*

French protest songs provide a good indicator of social and political tensions from the 1950s onwards. In addition, they contrast with their counterparts in Canada and, to some extent, in the USA. Indeed, the more aggressive French lyrical tradition, often ridden with ad hominem attacks, reflects the political dynamic of conflict that has prevailed in France for the last two centuries. While some Canadian artists have evoked political issues (Neil Young, The Tragically Hip, etc.), they have usually remained within what could be termed “the space of polite consensus.” Whether the lyrical content is radical or not, it rarely fully steps into the realm of partisan politics. In that regard, Leonard Cohen’s interpretation of “The Partisan” (recorded in 1969, originally written in 1943 by the French Second World War resister Emmanuel d’Astier de La Vigerie) is quite emblematic of these differences, as the French lyrics speak unequivocally of “the Germans” as the enemy and of the need for national liberation, while the English verse is much more abstract:

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

Thus, two irreconcilable approaches to politics can be found within the same song: one based on consensus, and the other on conflict. As for the future of American protest songs, it is probably bright, given the latest developments south of the border.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is currently a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.

2 thoughts on “Fifty Years of French Protest Songs

  1. Pingback: York University picks provost Rhonda Lenton to be its new president – YFile

  2. Richard M

    A really fascinating article, and many thanks for the rich information. Just wondering .. where would you fit Jacques Brel (Belgian, I know, but singing mainly in French and working in Paris) in this tradition and spectrum? Surely songs such as Les Bourgeois, Madeleine, Les Bigotes, Les Bonbons, Le Remparts de Varsovie, etc, would be interesting to consider in political terms …? Very best.

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