It was first sung by Marcel Mouloudji, in 1954. Subsequently, it was forbidden by the French censor to be sold or broadcast until 1962. It was later translated into English, Italian (by Luigi Tenco, Ornella Vanoni and Ivano Fossati), Spanish, Swedish ("Jag står här på ett torg", Lars Forssell), Dutch ("De deserteur" by Peter Blanker), Catalan and Danish and then many other languages. In the United States, it was a major anti-war song by Joan Baez during the Vietnam War.
The song is in the form of a letter written to the French President by a man who states that he is going to refuse his call to arms and desert, and explains his reasons for doing so.
The last stanza of the song was altered to complete the idea that the "Deserter" is asking for peace by recommendation of Mouloudji. In the original stanza, he is nevertheless not armless when he faces pursuers.  Below is the original French stanza and its English translation.
|Si vous me poursuivez
prévenez vos gendarmes
|And if you pursue me,
warn your policemen,
- Pynchon, Thomas (1963). V. J. B. Lippincott Company. pp. 18–19.
- Le Déserteur in 45 languages, with the complete history of the song in French, Italian and English, from website Chansons Contre la Guerre (CCG/AWS)