Changes to French educational curricula rarely make headline news in Britain. However, both The Times and the Daily Telegraph felt it worth reporting on a recent decision to make primary-school pupils learn, and sing, La Marseillaise.

At one level, it might seem perfectly natural, if one is going to have a national anthem, to spend a little time in school learning what it is. But opening up that basic question of what such a song is – and is for – reveals that nothing about such a choice is simple.

Unlike most national anthems, either generic patriotic ditties adopted in retrospect, or specially composed banal dirges to national virtues, La Marseillaise served as a real rallying cry for national survival. Written in 1792, when the French Revolution had just flung itself into war against the major powers of Europe, it speaks of the dread of counter-revolutionary invasion and the horrors it will bring:

Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised,
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

But this is also a “day of glory” to which the “children of the Fatherland” are summoned, and after raising this threat, the chorus bursts forth:

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!

Thousands of volunteers marching to war on the frontiers, and to topple the monarchy in Paris, hurled these words to the skies, heralding the birth of France’s republican tradition and its defence through years of ensuing combat. In the first half of the 19th century the song was often suppressed in France by various monarchical regimes, but became part of the repertoire of international radical and revolutionary protest. It was finally anointed again as the official national anthem in 1879, after France had definitively become a republic once more.

The moral weight of this tradition is captured in the famous scene in the film Casablanca, when the patrons of Rick’s bar, including several real refugees from Nazism, roar it out in defiance of the German officers singing their own, anti-French, patriotic hymn, Die Wacht am Rhein. If this were the real meaning of La Marseillaise, pure and simple, what right-thinking person could object to learning it off by heart and singing it every day?

But Casablanca is set in Morocco, a sovereign monarchy transformed into a French “protectorate” in the years of great power rivalry before 1914, by the usual imperialist combination of force and guile. Its neighbour Algeria had been declared an integral part of France itself decades before. The very day, May 8 1945, that Europe was declared free of Nazi tyranny, French soldiers attacked Algerians protesting for independence, starting a wave of conflict that killed more than 100 French settlers and several thousand Algerians. The next two decades in the history of France were stained by the brutal refusal to yield independence to its imperial territories, in wars that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The history of imperialism, and its legacies of racism and inequality, haunt La Marseillaise. In the 21st century, it has rarely been free of controversy. On some recent occasions, it has come to the fore once again as a symbol of a nation under attack. Twice, in January and November 2015, the French National Assembly united in singing it after terrorist attacks – attacks which nonetheless have posed hard and unanswered questions about the radicalisation of marginalised youths of African origins.

More often, the anthem has become embroiled in controversies around sporting events – and particularly football matches – where, ironically and pervasively, the politics of national identity make headlines year after year. The French national team won the World Cup on home soil in 1998 with what seemed at the time like an epoch-making display of multi-ethnic unity. But in 2001, when the Algerian team came to Paris for their first ever encounter, La Marseillaise was greeted with a hurricane of booing from a crowd largely made up of the descendants of colonial subjects. The match was eventually abandoned after a pitch invasion.

The historian Laurent Dubois has documented the emergence of these tensions. They began with inflammatory comments in 1996 by the then-leader of the far-right Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, about non-white footballers not singing the anthem, and who were thus “fake Frenchmen”. In vain did players of a previous generation point out that nobody really sang the anthem. Le Pen made it such a touchstone that he launched his 2002 presidential campaign in front of the stadium where the Algeria game had been played, referencing the non-white crowd’s booing specifically as he did so. And, of course, Le Pen succeeded in getting through to the final round of that election, pushing aside the candidates of the left, as his daughter Marine did in 2017.

Through these controversies, the association between La Marseillaise and race has been reinforced. In 2014, the justice minister Christiane Taubira, of Afro-Caribbean descent, was sucked into a social media row with the conservative opposition after being seen not singing along at a ceremony marking the abolition of slavery. Supporters produced video of many other politicians doing likewise, but it formed part of a pattern of attacks on Taubira, one of France’s most prominent black politicians.

From the other side, the song’s lyrics, and particularly the line about “impure blood”, have increasingly been seen as essentially racist – in the wake of the Taubira incident, the actor Lambert Wilson called them terrible, bloody, racist and xenophobic”. There have been campaigns to change them or to change the whole song, while others argue that altering a few words will not deal with the underlying racism of society.

The series of shocking terrorist outrages in Paris and elsewhere since 2015 have, in some senses, put these squabbles into perspective. Christiane Taubira can be seen, just about singing along, in the video of the November 2015 parliamentary Marseillaise. In other senses, however, they have heightened the tensions which lie behind the disputes. Taubira herself resigned from the government two months later, unwilling to endorse a proposal to strip French citizenship from convicted terrorists.

The 2017 presidential election was fought in part on a clearly right-wing terrain over the merits of France’s colonial history, and whether both revolutionary and imperial pasts had to be accepted for one to be truly French.

In the meantime, the non-white descendants of imperial subjects continue to inhabit the deprived estates of the urban periphery – the famous banlieues – and to experience economic neglect and police brutality under governments of every colour. Alongside the new educational focus on La Marseillaise the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has just announced a policy of universal national service for all 16-year-olds: it remains to be seen whether this or anything else will be enough to unite the children of the Fatherland – and where they are supposed to march.

This article was originally published on The Conversation