PARIS (AFP) — It is a song close to French hearts, the building power of its defiant march swelling chests and bringing a tear to the eye.
But the “Song of the Partisans” — the hymn of the French Resistance which moves most French people more than their bellicose national anthem “La Marseillaise” — was in fact written over a pot of tea in London by a group of Russians.
For years the authorities were content to quietly perpetuate the myth that the song had sprung from the brave hearts of fighters who had taken to the “maquis” and the mountains to resist the German occupiers during World War II.
Indeed the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle ordered that the names of its true authors be hushed up, a new exhibition on the song in Paris shows.
“If people realized that it had been written in London over tea and sandwiches it wouldn’t quite have had the same ring nor credibility,” said curator Lionel Dardenne.
In fact, the music was written by a young White Russian aristocrat named Anna Betoulinsky who worked in the Free French canteen in the British capital.
She later became Anna Marly after plucking her stage name from a telephone directory.
It was only after her “Guerrilla Song” had aired on the BBC that Marly — who grew up on the French Riviera after fleeing Saint Petersburg when her father was murdered by the Bolsheviks — was persuaded to adapt it for her adopted homeland.
In one of the many historical ironies that surround the stirring ballad, she actually wrote the original version in Russian to celebrate the sacrifice of Soviet partisans who had slowed Hitler’s advance on Moscow.
But it was the French version that was later included in the repertoire of the Red Army Choir.
Indeed, its lyrics were mostly written by another Russian, Joseph Kessel, whose family moved to France when he was also a child.
A heroic pilot in both the world wars, the journalist went on to write “Belle de Jour” and the “Army of Shadows” — a bleak, unromantic portrait of the Resistance — both of which were made into classic films.
In a further irony, the song was taken up by Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh in their struggle to free Vietnam from its French and later American overlords.
Supporters of French Algeria, whose armed wing tried to assassinate Marly and Kessel’s hero De Gaulle on several occasions, also adopted it.
It also very nearly became the national anthem of South Korea.
Dardenne said a large part of the song’s appeal rests on its “perceived authenticity … and on the belief which still persists that it was written anonymously and came up from the depths of the Resistance.”
Even though it is a central part of many official French commemoration ceremonies, “most people don’t really know where it comes from,” he added.
Such is its power and malleability that it exists simultaneously as an official anthem and a protest song, with the French “yellow vest” protest movement reclaiming it and changing the lyrics to urge President Emmanuel Macron to listen to the people.
Dardenne said it was the Resistance leader Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie who, after rewriting parts of song himself, insisted on its real authorship being blurred.
Neither Marly nor Kessel — who believed that “a people without songs is a people who cannot fight” — objected given there was a war to be won, the curator added.
However, over time their roles became further eclipsed because “the ‘Song of the Partisans’ is deeply anchored in people’s hearts because people think that it comes from the maquis.”
Marly in particular suffered, Dardenne said, despite the fact that her companion song, “The Complaint of the Partisan” which she wrote with Astier de la Vigerie, was taken up and re-recorded by Leonard Cohen in 1969 as “The Partisan.”
“She never quite had the fame that she would have wanted,” Dardenne said. She died in a Russian Orthodox monastery in Alaska in 2006.
© Agence France-Presse
by Fiachra GIBBONS