The French flag, also known as the French Tricolor, is one of the most well-known and celebrated symbols in history. It is composed of three vertical bands of colors blue, white and red (in that order). However, the Tricolor was not always the national flag of France.
In this article, we have summarized its long-standing history, which spans from the 5th century Frankish Kingdoms, through the middle ages and Napoleanic France to the modern era, the design aspects, and significance.
There are two versions of the French flag that are in use today, one is dark, and the other is lighter. While both versions are equally used, the lighter one is more common in digital renditions and also used in various government buildings.
The light version of the flag, with hexadecimal values, blue (#0055A4), white (#FFFFFF), and red (#EF4135), was introduced in televised programs for the first time under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1976.
Another critical aspect of the French flag (from the design perspective) is the proportion in which the colors are used. Currently, all three colors are displayed at equal width (in the proportion 2:3). However, the initial tricolor design had the color proportion of 30 (blue), 33 (white), and 37 (red).
It was only under Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled France between 1804 and 1815, that the proportions were changed to its current settings. But in 1853, the French Navy went back to using the ‘pre-Napoleon era’ tricolor style as its ensign.
The French Naval Ensign
The idea is to create a flag that appears to have equal color proportion when seen moving from a distance. The tricolor flag (blue, white, and red), also serves as the national emblem of France, according to Article 2 of the French constitution.
History of the French Flag
The French flag has a riveting and long-standing history. In the early middle ages, the Kingdom of France was represented by the oriflamme (a red banner with two to five-pointed ends), or the flag of Saint-Denis.
By the 12th century, the oriflamme was replaced by a blue crest decorated with gold lily flowers or fleurs-de-lis. Since then, for more than three centuries, French kings used identical crest versions as their coats-of-arms.
Coat-of-arms of Philip VI the Fortunate, the King of France from 1328 from 1350
The fleur-de-lis is a historical symbol that represents catholic saints of France, particularly St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary. While its exact origin is unknown, the symbol represented the French royalty for centuries and is widely associated with the Bourbon family, a branch of the Capetian dynasty.
The blue Capetian banner remained in use throughout the Hundred Years’ War, a series of conflicts between two royal houses of France and the Kingdom of England from 1337 to 1453 over the rule of the French Kingdom.
The Birth of Tricolore
The origin of the Tricolore can be precisely traced back to the French Revolution, which took place between 1789 and 1799. The revolution bought many radical changes in societies across France, and the national flag was one of those. The current French flag is derived from the first official Cockade of France.
On July 13, 1789, a day before the siege on Bastille, an opportunity presented itself to make the newly established militia, also known as “Bourgeois Militia,” to stand apart from traditional armies. It was decided that a cockade (a circular ribbon), with blue at the center and red on edge, would be given to them. Both red and blue colors are historically associated with Paris.
An earlier attempt to make a French military cockade was made just the day before by a journalist Camille Desmoulins but was dropped due to political reasons.
The Cockade of France
After successfully capturing the Bastille, the commander-in-chief of the Bourgeois Militia, Marquis of Lafayette, changed its name to the “National Guard.” He then added a white color band (in the middle between blue and red) to the cockade to show their allegiance to the State.
In late 1790, the National Constituent Assembly made it mandatory for all French naval ships to carry the tricolor flag, but with strips arranged vertically (with white in the middle and red in the bottom). By 1792, it became the official symbol of the French Revolution.
Discontinuation and Reinstatement Of the Tricolore
The Tricolore attained the status of the national flag of France on February 15, 1794, following a decree by the National Convention. Surprisingly, however, it was not used for the most part during the French Revolution.
Instead, a plain red flag gained prominence at that time. It was a symbol of defiance and has been associated with left-wing politics, much like today.
As the French revolution ended in 1799, political and economic instability ensued over the country. However, no changes were made to the national flag, at least for one and a half-decade. Under Napoleon’s First French Empire, the flag remained mostly the same.
However, in 1815, when the monarchy was restored (Bourbon Restoration) in France following Napoleon’s defeat, the Tricolor was replaced with a white flag. But by that time, the blue, white, and red-colored flag had already become a valuable national symbol.
In 1830, during the Second French Revolution, which ousted King Charles X from the French throne, revolutionaries rallied against the king, waving the Tricolor flag on government buildings and streets throughout Paris. The same year, after a 15 years hiatus, the Tricolor was restored as the national flag of France by a newly crowned king Louis-Philippe I.
Alphonse de Lamartine in front of Hotel de Ville in Paris voicing his disapproval for the Red Flag on February 25, 1848, by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux
The French Revolution of 1848, once again threatened the status of Tricolor as the national flag, as a large group of insurgents demanded it to be replaced with a plain red flag. It was, however, vehemently rejected by Alphonse de Lamartine, a French politician, and writer, during his famous speech in front of the Town Hall in Paris.
“Because Europe knows the flag of his defeats and of our victories in the flag of the Republic and of the Empire. By seeing the red flag, they’ll see the flag of a party!”
“This is the flag of France, it is the flag of our victorious armies, it is the flag of our triumphs that must be addressed before Europe. France and the tricolor is the same thought, the same prestige. Citizens, for me, the red flag, I am not adopting it, and I’ll tell you why I’m against with all the strength of my patriotism.”
Alphonse de Lamartine
Furthermore, a slightly different variant of the Tricolor was also in use during that time, though for a brief period. In this version of the flag, the positions of red and white colors are swapped, while the blue portion remains intact.
What Do The Colors Of The French Flag Stand For?
The present-day French flag is composed of three colors; blue, white, and red. Each of them has multiple symbolism and references.
Red, a primary color, is often associated with love and passion, but it also signifies vigor, strength, and leadership. Its association with bravery and courage is the reason why the color is found on shields, military patches, and national flags.
In heraldry (coat-of-arms), the color blue is used to signify sincerity, freedom, and loyalty. Depending on the shade, blue may also express negativity and sadness or depression and unreliability.
Paris has long been associated with the colors blue and red. Their connection with the city is embedded deep into its history. In the middle ages and early modern era, French kings and monarchs used these colors customarily.
A depiction of Charlemagne in the national library of France
During the coronation of Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, blue banners were raised to commemorate Saint Martin’s cloak. After Hugh Capet’s, a descendant of Charlemagne, rise to the throne, the red flag of Saint-Denis became a royal ensign.
White color was introduced during the French Revolution by commander Marquis of Lafayette. The idea was to “nationalize” the new cockade design. However, many believed that it represented monarchy. For more than a century, from 1638 and 1790, a white color flag was used as the French Naval ensign.
During the early stages of the French Revolution, the political groups that gained most prominence were the Royalists and Jacobins. The Royalists, carrying white flags, were anti-revolutionaries. The Jacobins, on the other hand, flew the republican red flags. As it turns out, the Tricolor flag can also be seen as pacification between the white Royalists and red Jacobins.
Biblically, both Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the patroness of France, have been depicted in red and blue colors. Here, blue and red referred to as divinity and humanity, respectively.
The flag colors may also stand for the order of the social hierarchy (three-estates) that existed during the Old Regime, or Ancien Regime. It was made up of clergy, nobility, and the bourgeoisie.
The Tricolor In Colonial France
During the first and second french colonial empire (1534-1980), many overseas states under the French rule used flags and official ensigns based on the Tricolor. In most cases, they had the Tricolor in the canton (upper left corner of the flag).
Examples include Malagasy Protectorate (present-day Madagascar) from 1885 to 1895, the State of Greater Lebanon from 1920 to 1943, the French Protectorate of Wallis and Futuna (currently under French rule, but with different flag) from 1860 to 1886.
The flag of Free French Forces
During the Second World War, the Free French Forces led by future president Charles de Gaulle used the Tricolor as their official ensign. The only difference is the Cross of Lorraine located on the center white filed.
Today many regions of the United States, which have a substantial population of French heritage, have adopted Tricolor inspired ensigns. The flag of New Orleans is the perfect example.