Qu’est-ce que la France? Images of French identity through music

Throughout a course on 20th-century and contemporary France, I’ve been incorporating popular songs into our analysis of what it means to be French, from the post-war period to the present day. I’ve used music in a variety of ways: comparing two songs from the same period, or from vastly different periods (1945 and 1975, for example). I have also included songs when discussing their political, social, or cultural contexts.

Below are some of the sources I’ve used, with a few notes about class activities and analysis.

Charles Trenet, “Douce France,” 1945: I had the students listen to this song for our unit on les Trente Glorieuses. We picked out specific words and phrases to answer the question “qu’est-ce que la France?”: mémoire, souvenirs, enfance, village au clocher aux maisons sages, bonheur, insouciance, ma prairie et ma maison.
Video at DailyMotion
Text download (.pdf)

Michel Sardou, “J’habite en France,” 1970: Y’en a qui pensent que le champagne sort des gargouilles de Notre-Dame; Mais la France c’est aussi un pays où y’a quand même pas cinquante millions d’abrutis
Video on YouTube

Renaud, “Hexagone,” 1975: Of quite a different genre than Trenet’s song, and coming at the end of the Trente Glorieuses, Renaud’s song about his country is pessimistic and cynical. Mai ’68 has come a gone, the global economy is suffering after the 1973 choc pétrolier, Giscard is president, and the left is feeling left behind. Here, the key words and phrases we found included révolution manquée; moutons; l’ordre et la sécurité; y avait pas beaucoup de Jean Moulin; une révolution, qui n’a jamais éliminé la misère et l’exploitation; la bagnole, la télé, l’tiercé, c’est l’opium du peuple de France; 50 millions de prétendants (echoing Sardou’s line)
Video on Dailymotion
Download lyrics (.pdf)

Diam’s “Ma France à moi,” 2006: This song is firmly planted in the youth culture of the HLM, la banlieue, and in the post-October 2005 socio-political context. Dans ma bulle, the album on which “Ma France à moi” appeared, was the #1 selling French album sold in the country that year. My students noted how the song and video’s attack on French culture was based on social hypocrisy, and not along strictly racial lines (although racism is a theme in the lyrics).
Video on Dailymotion
Download lyrics (.pdf)

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