Latin Music Week

Madame Monsieur's 'Mercy': How a Newborn Refugee Inspired France's Eurovision Song Entry

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
Emilie Satt and Jean-Karl Lucas of Madame Monsieur photographed on April 12, 2018 in Paris.

On March 21, 2017, a Nigerian refugee named Taiwo Yussif went into labor while on board L'Aquarius — a rescue ship operated by the humanitarian organization SOS Méditerranée. Just hours earlier the ship had saved her and 944 other refugees, who had braved the perilous crossing from northern Africa to Europe. As the boat made its way to the port of Catania, in Sicily, Yussif delivered an eight-pound baby girl. She named her Mercy. "Those people were so kind to me," she'd later say of the crew on board the ship. "I saw a lot of people dying in the sea, it was so difficult for me. I thank God to be alive with Mercy."

On that same day, and some 1,400 miles away, the electro-pop duo Madame Monsieur sat in a Paris recording studio working on their debut album. "We were just chilling on Twitter and we found this picture of this baby born fifteen minutes earlier," says vocalist Émilie Satt. "It came so hard and so strong into our hearts that after a few minutes we thought maybe we should try to translate this emotion into a song."

Jean-Karl Lucas, her husband and the group's producer, immediately played her a sober and stirring piece he'd composed weeks earlier. The sparse strumming of his guitar reminded Satt of ocean waves and the lyrics began to flow. "I was born this morning, my name is Mercy, in the middle of the sea between two countries," Satt sings in French. As the song unfolds, the baby tells her own story — of leaving home and fleeing war — and nods to those less fortunate than her: "This is where I let out my first cry…I am all those children who were taken by the sea."

The song — which they also named "Mercy" — debuted in January as a competing entry at Destination Eurovision, France's national selection show for the Eurovision Song Contest. They bypassed the fireworks and fancy light displays of their competitors, deciding to sing before gentle waves on circular LED screens. They wore all-black outfits, not as a symbol of death, but so that they might disappear from the scene altogether, letting the music take center stage. In that pared-back atmosphere, the song's thumping beat sounded like a child's pounding heart. The public felt it, handing them victory and the right to represent France at Eurovision this May in front of a global audience of 200 million.

Their win and the spotlight that now follows them comes as Europe tightens its borders and with Populism resurgent. The leaders of Poland's ruling Law & Justice Party regularly scaremonger with anti-immigrant rhetoric. Hungary recently re-elected its nationalist leader for a fourth term, who said Europe is "under invasion" by migrants. And France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen took a third of all votes in last year's presidential election, vowing to suspend immigration to "protect France."

Madame Monsieur managed to cut through the noise. Following the TV show, "Mercy" reached No. 3 on the French charts and remained in the Top 50 for 14 weeks. It's a feat almost unheard of for a Eurovision song in France, where a large portion of the public views the show as an incubator for low-brow, disposable music. They've grabbed headlines and won hearts abroad, too. "A few weeks ago, we did a concert in Tel Aviv, Israel, and ten thousand people were singing 'Mercy' in French with us," Lucas says. "We understood at that moment that our song has become much bigger than us." Should they win Eurovision — they're now among the bookies' Top 5 favorites — it would stem mostly from the music. But their act, no doubt, will benefit from voters keen to rebuke leaders, even if symbolically, as Europe leans to the right.

That comes with controversy. The so-called "Calais Jungle" in northern France remains a flashpoint in the migrant crisis, and has witnessed mass brawls and shootings in recent months. Some radio stations in the region refuse to play the song, owing to discontent among a few outspoken critics. Fabien Randanne, a culture and media journalist with French newspaper 20 Minutes, takes such opposition as evidence of the song's power.

"If people are uncomfortable with 'Mercy,' it may because they don't want to face reality," he says. "Or because they demonize refugees and refuse to be moved by the story of a little girl. That's what makes this song more than a song. You can sing along, of course. But if you focus on the lyrics you have to answer the question, 'Where is my humanity?'"

That question took on renewed vigor on April 20, when journalists from France Inter — a major public radio station — revealed they had found Mercy, now 13 months old, and her mother Taiwo alive and well in a Sicilian refugee camp. In a photo shared on Twitter, Mercy — who was first photographed as an infant in the Mediterranean sun moments after her birth — is seen standing upright and beaming and wearing a red sweater with a teddy bear on the front. "We know that Mercy and her mother Taiwo are still in a very difficult and complicated situation," says Satt. "But we are relieved and happy that both were found safe."

That discovery has only strengthened Mercy's position as a symbol of children crossing the Mediterranean. On Sunday a French news program entitled 20 Week-End aired footage of Taiwo holding her daughter while watching Madame Monsieur's Destination Eurovision performance on a presenter's smartphone.

"It is a very nice song," she says in the video, her eyes welling up. "I pray to God that this song will be a success and that, thanks to that, someone can help me.

"I have no one. My baby suffers here in this camp. I want it to stop. We have been here for too long."