An understanding of French symbols is part of essential cultural knowledge about the country, after all! We’re also aware that the revolutionaries played a critical role in creating this particular emblem. But our beloved French national flag did not always take its current form.
By immersing yourself in French history and culture while learning French in France, you will discover the evolution of these symbols and many other exciting aspects of French life.
What is the meaning behind the flag’s colours? Which historical figures played a significant role in designing it? How, exactly, did the history of the tricolour unfold? In short, what does the French flag mean?
When we talk about a piece of fabric, generally rectangular in shape, that flies over public buildings and serves as a national emblem, then it’s obvious that we are referring to a ‘flag’. Article 2 of the 1958 Constitution is clear on this point: ‘The national emblem is the blue, white and red tricolour flag.’
Remember that the tricolour and the national anthem, the famous Marseillaise, are symbols of the French Republic (unlike stereotypes about French people – the well-known Gallic rooster, for example, is not an official symbol!). On display in town halls across France, the bust of Marianne is a reminder that this female character has embodied the Republic since the 1880s.
Across eras, continents and cultures, colours have come to symbolise different things. Blue is reminiscent of the natural world, a symbol of both calm and melancholy. Red is associated with danger, anger or bloodshed, as well as with the passion of love. Finally, white represents purity, peace and the divine.
It’s important to remember, however, that in some Asian cultures, white is the colour that accompanies the deceased as they move on. A symbol of the divine right of the monarchy, white is also a reference to the famous fleur-de-lis, while, for many historians, blue and red are associated with the city of Paris. Other experts, however, believe that the blue, white and red combination is characteristic of the House of Bourbon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Like the other two colours, blue is also part of many foreign flags, such as those of the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom. Have you ever noticed that the Dutch flag uses the same colours as the French flag, but comprises horizontal rather than vertical stripes?
Blue has been associated with France since the era of Clovis, the first king to have made it the colour of the Army. On the French flag, the blue stripe is traditionally ‘attached to the flagpole’, in line with the order determined by painter Jacques-Louis David.
It is no accident that the white stripe falls between the other two: as committed republicans, the emblem’s designers no doubt wanted to emphasise that the monarchy must be kept in check. In effect, the white colour is ‘imprisoned’ between the other two, as if they serve as the guarantors of the people’s ‘control’ over royalty. White is generally associated with monarchy.
During the Crusades, the white cross symbolised the archangel Gabriel, and from the time of the Hundred Years’ War it stood in contrast with the English red cross. In addition, the banner of St Michael – a white cross on a blue background – was used by royalist troops in the eighteenth century.
The national tricolour flag was officially adopted on 15 February 1794, but it subsequently underwent numerous transformations. Between 1814 and 1830, the return of the monarchy imposed a white flag, which was adopted until the arrival of Louis-Philippe I.
During the 1848 Revolution, the insurgents sought to impose a red banner as a symbol of bloodshed. Alphonse de Lamartine, a politician and poet from that era, was an ardent proponent of the blue, white and red flag, presenting it as a symbol of the Republic and of French military victories. ‘France and the tricolour, are one and the same thought, the same prestige – if need be, the same terror to our enemies.’ The tricolour, a sign of fraternity and national reconciliation, had to be maintained in the face of a ‘flag of blood’, symbolising division. To this day, historians agree that the combination of the three colours reflects the cohesion of the French people.
Did you know that the cockade played an important role in the history of the French national flag? During the Revolution, the cockade was initially green, the colour of hope. It’s said that the very first cockade was fashioned from a tree leaf, but it was more likely just a simple green ribbon. Camille Desmoulins, a journalist and lawyer of the time, used the cockade as an insignia by which the early revolutionaries could be identified.
The National Guard, meanwhile, wore a two-coloured cockade featuring blue and red. The Marquis de Lafayette, who was commander of this citizen militia, said that a few days after the Revolution, he had the idea of adding white. It should also be remembered that on 17 July 1789, at the request of the Mayor of Paris, the King of France agreed to attach a red-and-blue cockade – the colours of the capital – to his hat as a sign of national unity and conciliation.
Today, the cockade is worn in many different situations, but its use is regulated. The headwear that forms part of many uniforms, including that of the Republican Guard, is adorned with a cockade, as is the famous bicorne cocked hat worn by students at the prestigious higher education institution the École Polytechnique.