What are the most important symbols of France? Which things, people and ideas best represent France in terms of the country’s politics, society and culture? Both at home and abroad, the collective unconscious features a number of images which come to mind when we think about the French nation.
The leading symbol of any country is, of course, its flag. Adorning official buildings and flown at many outdoor events, particularly sporting competitions and military parades, the French flag is also known as the ‘tricolour’. Its current form, comprising three vertical stripes, has existed since 15 February 1794. The vertical rather than horizontal bands of colour serve a practical purpose, avoiding confusion with the flag of France’s close neighbours, the Dutch! As for the colours themselves, the white is a reference to the monarchy, while blue and red symbolise Paris, one of the first cities to rise up against monarchical rule.
Allons enfants de la Patrie/Le jour de gloire est arrivé !/Contre nous de la tyrannie/L'étendard sanglant est levé (Arise, children of the Fatherland/The day of glory has arrived!/Against us, tyranny’s/Bloody standard is raised). You’ll no doubt recognise these lines as the first words of France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, which was composed by Rouget de Lisle in 1792 when France declared war on Austria. But why is it called the ‘Marseillaise’ when it was written in response to a conflict with the Austrians? The answer is simply that it was volunteer revolutionary troops from Marseille who launched into the song during the Tuileries Insurrection on 10 August 1792. This was a decisive uprising for the people and so the song, which had previously been sung only by soldiers, became extremely popular. If you’re blessed with a good memory, you could try learning the words by heart, but you should be aware that the full version has 15 verses!
If you go to a town hall or court in France, you’re sure to see a bust of a woman wearing either a Phrygian (or ‘liberty’) cap or a laurel wreath. It is, of course, the famous Marianne. This young woman appears in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, a painting commemorating the 1830 Revolution. An icon of the Republic and a symbol of freedom, the legendary figure has been embodied by Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Laetitia Casta and, more recently, Sophie Marceau.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. These lines taken from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include the three words which form the motto of the French Republic: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood). French Enlightenment philosophers helped to make France the country of human rights.
In addition to these symbols, there are other images, dates, things and even animals which are closely associated with France, although they do not have the same official status. One example is Bastille Day, which falls on the fourteenth of July. As well as the traditional military parade on the Champs-Elysées and the aerobatic display by the aircraft of the Patrouille de France, the festivities feature fireworks and Fireman’s Balls.
Did you know that the rooster became a symbol of France in spite of itself? What could possibly be the link between this bird and the country? It’s actually the result of a linguistic quirk: the Latin word gallus means both ‘rooster’ and ‘an inhabitant of Gaul’ (the Roman name for an ancient region of Europe encompassing modern-day France). An interesting fact, don’t you think? Today, some supporters of the French national football team (Les Bleus) wear the symbol with pride, but it had a hard time establishing itself. Napoleon I felt that the animal had no strength and could not therefore be ‘the emblem of an empire such as France.’ Nowadays, you’ll probably have noticed that the rooster can be found on church towers (serving as weathervanes) or on war memorials.
In any case, the rooster can be found on the Great Seal of France, the official seal of the French Republic. The seal depicts a seated woman leaning on a rudder, on which is engraved a rooster with its foot resting on a globe. There is also an urn bearing the initials ‘S.U.’ as a reminder of the importance of direct universal suffrage (suffrage universel), which was adopted in 1848. In her right hand, the woman holds the fasces. Appearing on the coats of arms of the French Republic and on French passports, the fasces represented the power of enforcement and punishment.
There are also less institutional symbols of France which have more cultural associations. To the list of things that represent the French Republic can be added the images which spring to mind when we hear the word France. Unquestionably, this is a country which is inextricably linked with the art of eating well and good manners. While we might be willing to concede that there are other cuisines out there, you have to admit that France is definitely the best in some areas, with cakes and pastries (patisserie) being one example. Who hasn’t heard of such delights as macarons, crème brûlée, tarte tatin and Paris-Brest? Gaston Lenôtre and Pierre Hermé are the leading authorities in this field. As for haute couture (Dior, Chanel, Givenchy and the rest) and exquisite jewellery (Boucheron, Chaumet, etc.), the French have nothing to be ashamed of here either! France boasts unique regions like Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Brittany, Normandy and Occitania. It also has iconic monuments, museums and sights such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Mont Saint Michel. France’s cultural reputation is largely due to the French language, French writers (Proust, Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant and so on), French poets (Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Prévert to name just a few) and French philosophers (including Rousseau, Voltaire, Descartes and Comte). French, whose merits are championed by the French Academy (Académie française), is also the language of diplomacy. Finally, in terms of social issues, French people have access to an efficient public health service and a social welfare system which are the envy of other countries. And it’s clear from recent events that many in France are attached to the notion of fair taxation and reject political authoritarianism of any kind.