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Behind the French obsession with the Strasbourg Seat

Weekly analysis and untold stories

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Behind the French obsession with the Strasbourg Seat

It is 1792 and the Mayor of Strasbourg, Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich, is holding a dinner for French soldiers stationed in the city, in the midst of France’s declaration of war with Austria. In attendance is a 31-year-old military officer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle.

At the gathering, the Mayor was said to have bemoaned the lack of a national anthem that could be used to galvanise public support for the French cause. Rouget de Lisle took note. Later that evening he returned to his lodgings and furiously scribbled down a text to fit the purpose.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries and in modern day Strasbourg, displayed on the front of a building located at number 3, Place Broglie, one will find a commemorative plaque, paying testimony to the site that Rouget de Lisle’s text was first sung to Mayor Dietrich on 26 April 1792.

That text came to represent the most explicit emblem of French patriotism in the lyric world. That song came to be La Marseillaise.

Notwithstanding the historical links to France’s revered paean, Strasbourg is also a city dearly regarded by the French for a plethora of historical and political reasons, not least due to the fact that over the centuries its jurisdiction has been fiercely contested.

In 1262, it was a free city of the German Holy Roman Empire before coming under French control in 1681 as part of Louis XIV’s conquest of Alsace. Following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, it once again fell into German hands.

This, however, didn’t last long. After the end of the first World War, it once again became French territory, before the defeat of the French in World War Two, when the Germans seized control. Following the victory of the allies, the city, deeply contorted by a confused sense of historical character, became French.

Today, Germany and France now praise Strasbourg as the ‘city of reconciliation’ – its current tenure under the French helping to appease the bitter acrimony posited on the palates of those who may have been on the winning side in the second World War, but still felt as if they had lost much in the way of national pride.

In such a way, the city today yields a profound symbolic influence for the French governing powers. In modern European Union history, this ambiance resounds raucously, and nowhere was it more apparent this week than in Brussels.

Following the decision of the European Parliament to cancel their monthly plenary session in Strasbourg, only to instead be held in the Belgian capital, the response from the French was forthright and bordering on the disdainful.

The decision, European Parliament President Davide Sassoli said, had been made in response to the recent move from the French authorities to designate a number of areas, including Strasbourg, as coronavirus ‘red zones,’ meaning that those travelling to the city from Brussels would be required to quarantine on their return.

Sassoli said that in this context, the European Parliament administration was ‘obliged’ to hold September’s session in Brussels.

In a joint statement from the country’s EU Affairs Minister Clement Beaune and today’s Mayor of Strasbourg Jeanne Barseghian, the pair demanded a ‘rapid return’ to Strasbourg for upcoming plenary sessions.

“France is deeply attached to the seat of the European Parliament,” the statement read, with Beaune also referring to the city as the ‘European Capital.’

In this vein, it is understood that the French government want to see a return to Alsace as soon as possible in the Parliamentary calendar. In October, there are two plenary sessions due to occur.

“The French aren’t comfortable with setting any kind of a precedent for further sessions to be held in Brussels rather than Strasbourg,” one Parliament official told me this week.

“But of course, this is a symbolic attachment to the city, it’s not necessarily about doing the most rational thing in the context of the current health crisis,” he added.

Aside from the existing context, there is also a piercing paranoia in the French ranks that at some point in the future, calls in Brussels will once again swell with more agency and force with regards to stripping Strasbourg of the Parliament plenary seat.

The so-called ‘travelling circus’ of MEPs and Parliament staff has long been derided by those based in Brussels, who feel that the monthly move is a waste of money as well as being damaging for the environment. Consecutive reports from the European parliament over the past decade have rallied for treaty change in order to do away with the Strasbourg seat.

However, in effect, the French should really count themselves lucky that there is a Parliamentary seat in Strasbourg at all. It is only down to a bout of luck and coincidence that when the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 were scouting out an appropriate location for the Common Assembly, the Belgians couldn’t agree on backing Liège – an option that had been received warmly by other members of the ECSC.

While Luxembourg was chosen as the provisional seat, Strasbourg, by virtue of the fact that the Council of Europe had been established there in 1949, had a hall large enough to cater for appointed parliamentarians from member states, and thus was chosen as the seat for the Common Assembly.

After much internal quarrelling, at the Edinburgh European Council in 1992, member states adopted a unified position in stating that Strasbourg would host 12 periods of monthly plenary sessions. Being annexed to the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, subsequent EU treaties also made this commitment.

So, the French obsession with Strasbourg is buttressed by a lively historical account of consecutive foreign occupations together with a legal convention supported by EU nations.

On this occasion, the French have reluctantly had no choice but to cede their desperate grasp over the city. Yet with the flames of the coronavirus pandemic fanning ever-the-more feverishly over the region, there is the increased chance that Strasbourg will be deprived of imminent sessions.

For his part, Rouget de Lisle attempted to pen a few other hymns of patriotic exaltation, but none ever caught on as fervently as La Marseillaise, which had been applied to worthy effect in the French Revolutionary cause.

Despite this, Rouget de Lisle died in poverty on the outskirts of Paris in 1836. His ballad, along with the historical pertinence of the city of Strasbourg as representing a very ‘French’ brand of creative, political energy, lives on.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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