Robespierre and Jean Ferrat, “Ma France”

A little over a year ago, the world lost a great man: Jean Ferrat, politically-committed singer, songwriter and town councilman of Antraigues-sur-Volane (Ardèche). All of those who have signed or are considering signing the Musée Robespierre petition (see September 10 posting), should take a moment to listen to Jean Ferrat’s song, “Ma France.” Read his obit, too, by Pierre Perrone, and think about the censorship that Ferrat suffered on French TV not so very long ago. As Perrone reminds us, Ferrat did not mince his words: “I don’t sing to pass the time,” Ferrat said and and sang in 1965. He later reflected: “I’ve never been a yes man for anybody. What really pleases me is that I reintroduced the great French poetry of writers like Aragon to the man in the street. I did that by going against the wishes of the music industry. They used to tell me that what I did was beautiful but of no interest to the general public. I proved them wrong but those idiots didn’t learn their lesson. They are still flogging crap to young people.”

What singers have taken up the fight for the ordinary working man and woman today in such lyrical ways?

The lyrics to “Ma France” include a cryptic reference to Robespierre; I’m not sure that I understand exactly what he means… But the rest of the song is a powerful anthem to the French land and French history far and near, in all its beauty and shame.
Ferrat’s words are intelligent, powerful and remain politically useful. May his warm baritone remain a presence in our lives for years to come. Enjoy!

Jean Ferrat, “Ma France”

De plaines en forêts de vallons en collines
Du printemps qui va naître à tes mortes saisons
De ce que j’ai vécu à ce que j’imagine
Je n’en finirai pas d’écrire ta chanson
Ma France

Au grand soleil d’été qui courbe la Provence
Des genêts de Bretagne aux bruyères d’Ardèche
Quelque chose dans l’air a cette transparence
Et ce goût du bonheur qui rend ma lèvre sèche
Ma France

Cet air de liberté au-delà des frontières
Aux peuples étrangers qui donnaient le vertige
Et dont vous usurpez aujourd’hui le prestige
Elle répond toujours du nom de Robespierre
Ma France

Celle du vieil Hugo tonnant de son exil
Des enfants de cinq ans travaillant dans les mines
Celle qui construisit de ses mains vos usines
Celle dont monsieur Thiers a dit qu’on la fusille
Ma France

Picasso tient le monde au bout de sa palette
Des lèvres d’Éluard s’envolent des colombes
Ils n’en finissent pas tes artistes prophètes
De dire qu’il est temps que le malheur succombe
Ma France

Leurs voix se multiplient à n’en plus faire qu’une
Celle qui paie toujours vos crimes vos erreurs
En remplissant l’histoire et ses fosses communes
Que je chante à jamais celle des travailleurs
Ma France

Celle qui ne possède en or que ses nuits blanches
Pour la lutte obstinée de ce temps quotidien
Du journal que l’on vend le matin d’un dimanche
A l’affiche qu’on colle au mur du lendemain
Ma France

Qu’elle monte des mines descende des collines
Celle qui chante en moi la belle la rebelle
Elle tient l’avenir, serré dans ses mains fines
Celle de trente-six à soixante-huit chandelles
Ma France

P.S. Thanks to Robert Fishman for bringing this great man and song to my attention.


11 thoughts on “Robespierre and Jean Ferrat, “Ma France”

  1. I think the Robespierre verse is about a] how the Jacobins freed the slaves; b] how the France of the late C.20 claimed the ‘prestige’ of such achievements for its own ‘liberal’ vision of post-imperial influence, but c] ‘My France’ will always know it was Robespierre – metonymic for radical revolutionism – that really did it.

    You could interpret the first 2 lines as more generally about internationalism, and the general message would still hold good.

    1. Thank you, Dave! (And to all the uninitiated out there, you should realize we are in the presence of one of the other great experts of revolutionary France to grace these pages, David Andress, Professor of Modern History at the Univ. of Portsmouth, UK).

  2. Great Stuff! Would the UK’s Billy Brag fit into the Jean Ferrat mold of singers one wonders? Otherwise, there aren’t many ‘modern troubadours’ out there that have the inspiration, influence, clout to inform the music industry that it’s, in the main, turning out complete “crap” as I believe Jean Ferrat referred to commercial music in France.

  3. Jean Ferrat was a progressive humanist who believed in changing the liberal/capitalist system to a society based on economic & social solidarity and the advancement of civil rights. He was smart enough to differentiate between the generous and equalitarian principles which sustain the Socialist ideology and its horrific evolutions under the so-called People’s Democratic regimes led by the USSR and still at work in China and North Korea.
    As for the allusion to Robespierre, it is more a question of his link to the “air of freedom” felt throughout Europe at the time of the 1st Republic than Ferrat’s opinion of that bloodthirsty dictator.
    If Ferrat had wanted to acknowledge the end of slavery, he would have mentioned Victor Schoelcher which (in the French pronunciation of the name) would have provided the correct rhyme to “frontieres”

  4. Nice surprise to find your website. I’d also been baffled by Ferrat’s reference to Robespierre in ‘Ma France’, and both the above comments shed light on it. Ferrat’s integrity shines through in all his (non-commercial) songs, and he was an uncompromising but humane socialist and revolutionary. He seems to have set a lot store by the Paris Commune of 1871, and pointed out in his song ‘La Commune’ that one could still scent revolution in the air in Paris a hundred years later – something which I think still, fortunately, just about pertains. And he was quite visionary in, among other things, his environmental concerns, elegantly expressed in the song ‘Restera-t-il un chant d’oiseau?’ Like all his music, it’s informed by a fierce spirit of human fellowship, and by love.

  5. Thanks for writing and passing along the tip on “La Commune,” Pete. That period fascinates me too; I’ll definitely check it out.
    Cheers, Julia

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