What’s Arabic for ‘Allons enfants de la patrie’?
The anthem is named for troops from Marseille who first sang it on the streets
With dozens of ghetto-like enclaves in Paris’ suburbs — inhabited mainly by immigrants from Muslim north Africa — literally aflame with ethnic and class tension, the impulse to promote unifying civic values is surely welcome.
If for no other reason, the improbable fact that her Algerian grandfather carried to safety a wounded soldier in World War I named Charles de Gaulle — founder of France’s Fifth Republic — should earn her a hearing.
But Verhaeghe-Amiri’s dogged efforts to get an Arabic rendition of France’s Republican rallying cry officially recognized by various state ministries, while endorsed in some quarters, is seen in others as sheer provocation.
The woman behind the dream
Born in the Algeria town of Setif, Verhaeghe-Amiri, 50, has first-hand knowledge of the frustrations felt by many of France’s six million residents who trace their origins to the Muslim, Arabic-speaking countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
"Many young north Africans feel left out in France," she said. "They grow up hating their lives here."
Whatever barriers they may face in French society, however, does not justify the rampaging violence that has wracked Parisian suburbs for 10 nights and counting, she said.
"I want them to learn to respect the values of peace and friendship, and, of course, liberty, equality and fraternity," the cornerstone values of French republicanism, she said. "So I wrote La Marseillaise in Arabic."
The idea was born in a moment of outright disgust.
Along with tens of millions of French television viewers, Verhaeghe-Amiri watched hundreds of Franco-Arab youths boo the French national anthem and then riot on the pitch at a 2001 football match between France and Algeria.
"I was ashamed to see the lack of respect the kids showed France," she said. "These kids have had no education in civic pride. The failure is at school, and especially at home."
The event, and the controversy it provoked, inspired Verhaeghe-Amiri, a former public high-school teacher, to rewrite a loose translation of the 18th-century revolutionary anthem. She then enlisted two professional pop singers to make a recording in her native Arabic, available today as a CD.
So now "Allons enfants de la Patrie" ("Arise, children of the fatherland") sounds like this: "hiya ab’na el wa’atan." The background music is typical of Algerian pop music.
French reaction: a polite non merci
Not surprisingly, a lot of French people don’t like the idea of meddling with the national anthem.
French politicians raised a chorus of protest this summer during a debate in the national assembly as to whether La Marseillaise’s arguably racist and bloodthirsty lyrics should be revised.
When enfant-terrible pop singer Serge Gainsbourg recorded a reggae-style adaptation in 1979, it was deemed scandalous.
But none of this has discouraged Verhaeghe-Amiri, who has contacted various French administrations in her quest for an official stamp of legitimacy.
The response has always been polite, sometimes even encouraging.
France’s beleaguered minister for equal opportunity Azouz Begag — on the front line this week of the government’s efforts to calm rioting suburban youth — wrote to Verhaeghe-Amiri earlier this year, for example, endorsing her efforts.
"Your approach fits perfectly with the government policy of equal opportunity and I thank you for your citizen’s engagement," he wrote.
But her efforts to have the Arabic anthem used in French schools, for example, have so far led to naught. No one dares say no — one senior education ministry official praised her initiative as "encouraging tolerance and fraternity."
But then he passed the buck to another office which will decide if the CD will be listed as authorized teaching material.
‘God save the Queen’ in French?
Verhaeghe-Amiri is not seeking to supplant the original. "The official anthem must always be played in French," she said. "But sports clubs could play the Arabic version as an educational tool. And it could be played in foreign, Arabic-speaking countries as a message of peace from France."
"Many North African youths here do have an identity crisis, and maybe this can help," said Karim Chayeb, an official in the Muslim Scouts of France organization. "This might do good for France’s image outside the country even more than inside."
But the idea is not universally welcomed. "I am of Guinean origin, but I do not need to hear La Marseillaise sung in Sou-sou to strengthen my respect of French values," commented Lynda Morrel, a youth center official in a Paris suburb.
Pascal Chollet, owner of a small toy store in Paris, agrees. "I think it must be sung in French, not in any other language, whether it be Arabic, Spanish or Chinese. Would you sing ‘God Save the Queen’ in French?"
Subject: Living in France