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The French singer-songwriter Jean Ferrat (1930 – 2010) wrote a number of controversial songs. One of his most beautiful songs, Ma France (1969), was banned from the radio for two years. It's last lines are as follows (emphasis added):

Elle tient l’avenir, serré dans ses mains fines
Celle de trente-six à soixante-huit chandelles
Ma France

English (my own translation):

She [France] holds the future in her fine hands
That of thirty-six to sixty-eight candles
My France

What is meant by the words "trente-six à soixante-huit chandelles"? According to this article by Manuel Talens,

This verse of consonant rhyme (belle / chandelles) refers to two important dates of French left history during the 20th Century, 1936 and 1968. The first one was the year of Léon Blum's Front Populaire victory in parliamentary elections, whereas the second one was the year of the French May insurrection. Ferrat introduces a play of words with chandelles, which is part of a French language boxing idiomatic expression voir les trente-six chandelles — literally "to see the thirty-six candles" — equivalent to the English language "to see stars" after a blow on the head. This ingenious rhetoric metabole permutation of both numbers allows the singer to metaphorically represent the failure of the 1968 students uprising at the hands of the French Republic's repressive apparatus.

When I showed this to a teacher of French (a native speaker) whose favourite singer is Jean Ferrat, she was sceptical. So my question is: did Manuel Talens get the meaning of "trente-six à soixante-huit chandelles" right or is there a better explanation?

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  • English speakers should note that the word that (in the translation) can't refer to either hands or future; mains is plural, and avenir is masculine. – Peter Shor Oct 11 '18 at 18:18
  • @PeterShor That's right. Do you have any suggestions for making this clearer in the translation? I can only think of putting a full stop at the end of the first line and a colon at the end of the second. – Tsundoku Oct 11 '18 at 18:40
  • There's a slightly different interpretation put forth here. soixante-huit is still 1968, but trente-six isn't 1936; just trente-six chandelles. – Peter Shor Oct 12 '18 at 2:55
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This is a reference to 1936 (strikes & front populaire) and 1968 (mai 68) social upheavals in France. These 2 dates are commonly referred by the left along 1789 (also mentioned in the song with Robespierre), 1848, 1870.

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

The French idiom is "voir 36 chandelles" when being hit in the head. But Ferrat's lyrics is about holding the candles, not seeing them, so it's not clear cut. "Chandelles" could also be understood as candles on a birthday cake.

Moreover the word "Celle" if singular means the candles refers to France itself (Ma France in the following line), and goes in favor of the anniversary interpretation. If "Celles" was plural (and the ending "s" isn't pronounced in French, so we don't know from the song) the candles would represent the fine hands (fingers) of France (weird and unusual).

I believe both the hit in the head (of the bourgeoisie) and the anniversary are the most likely interpretations of this ambiguous line. Probably both were intended.

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    This idea is already referenced in the question itself. Could you expand on why it is correct (which is what the question is asking) instead of merely re-stating what the questioner has already quoted? – bobble May 18 at 0:49
  • @bobble you are correct, I expanded on my answer – Manu de Hanoi May 19 at 4:25

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