The History of the French Flag

French Flag image from Pixabay

In the wake of the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris recently, the massive manhunt for the perpetrators and fears of similar attacks in other cities, there has been a massive outpouring of support and solidarity to the people of Paris and of France from around the world. The United Nations unanimously condemned ISIS, the organization that carried out the terrorist attacks. Social media sites have been flooded with a viral image of the peace sign mixed with a representation of the Eiffel Tower:


Paris Peace Sign by Jean Jullien

What’s more, many landmarks around the world were lit up in the colors of the French flag, from the Sydney Opera House to the Mexican Senate building. Not only that, but many social media users have changed their profile photo to show the colors of the French flag as well.

The blue-white-red tricolor is so closely associated with France, it makes one wonder: where did that flag come from? Who came up with that flag design? Why those colors?

France was America’s first ever ally, helping us win our War of Independence against the British. We Americans are also no strangers to being the victims of a brutal terrorist attack. Therefore, in my little show of solidarity with les citoyens de la France, today I’m going to talk about the history of the French flag.

Sacre de Charlemagne by Jean Fouquet

The first thing to understand about French history is that France is very, very old. It traces its origins to the kingdoms of the Franks, who emerged as a major power in western Europe in the aftermath of the Roman Empire’s collapse. For the first several centuries of French history, there was no such thing as a “flag of France”, as the very concept of a national flag had not been invented yet.

The first banner that sorta-kinda resembles a “flag of France” if you squint really hard was the Oriflamme, a banner that was used by the Basilica of St. Denis, an important and sacred church in Paris. In 1124, the flag was raised in battle by King Louis VI, and for centuries thereafter it was one of the banners carried by the French armies into battle.

Oriflamme by Tomasz Steifer

The Oriflamme was far from the only war flag used by French forces, though; the French would also frequently fight under a red or blue banner with a white cross. St. Joan of Arc had her own flag that she used in battle:

Reconstruction of St Joan of Arc flag by Jean Claude Colrat

In the meantime, the House of Valois rose to the French throne, and their coat of arms soon came to be used as a common symbol of France:

Ancient French coat of arms

Several French flags were created based on this design, including the one ultimately used by France during the reign of Louis XVI:


French Royal Flag from Wikipedia

Enter the French Revolution, which completely changed everything. During the chaotic days of 1789, the revolutionaries of Paris formed a militia, and as part of their uniform the wore a cockade, a circular cloth ribbon badge attached to their hats. Their cockades were blue and red, two colors that have long represented the city because they are the colors of its coat of arms:

Paris coat of arms from Allposters

The story goes that blue was the color of St. Martin and red the color of St. Denis. However, in the context of the revolution, these colors represented the people of Paris taking power for themselves.

Shortly thereafter, these militias were formally organized into a National Guard commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette. You might remember Lafayette as one of the heroes who helped save George Washington several times during the American Revolution. After the war, he returned to France, and became one of the leaders of the early phases of the French Revolution, helping to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. When he took command of the National Guard, he made them add the color white to their cockades. White was the color of the French monarchy, as it represented the Virgin Mary, but it was also a symbol of the French nation as a whole (as opposed to just the city of Paris). By adding the color, Lafayette hoped to symbolize that the National Guard was a force that would protect the rights of the whole nation, not just the capital city.

In 1790, the revolutionary government of France adopted a flag based on the design of Lafayette’s cockade, with vertical red, white, and blue stripes.

Almost there...

Almost there…

This flag most commonly appeared as part of French naval flags, but otherwise wasn’t widely adopted. In 1792, the French monarchy was overthrown, and the king and queen were guillotined the following year. At this point, most people flew a plain red banner, the symbol of the revolutionary Jacobin faction who had taken over the country and were now rounding up and killing thousands in the infamous “Reign of Terror”; even Lafayette himself had to flee the country. When the French revolutionary government reversed the colors of the official flag in 1794, creating today’s French national flag, few people probably noticed.

Flag of France image from Wikipedia

It wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte took power that the flag gradually came to be used by the French army and people. Then Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the pre-revolutionary French monarchy was ultimately restored. From 1815 to 1830, France went right back to using the pre-revolutionary white royal flag. Then in 1830 another revolution occurred, this one much shorter and less bloody. Louis-Philippe, the so-called “citizen-king”, took the throne and set up a constitutional monarchy. He restored the tricolor flag as France’s national flag. In 1848, Louis-Philippe was deposed in yet another revolution (man, France has had quite a few revolutions!), but the new ruler was Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who decided to keep the tricolor. Then he was overthrown in 1871 after losing the Franco-Prussian war, and the new government initially wanted to invite Henri, Count of Chambord to be France’s king. Henri said he would agree if France returned to the pre-revolutionary royal flag once again, but by now France had used the tricolor for more than four decades and it had become a cherished symbol. The French people told the count “No thanks, we’ll just become a republic again.” France has been a republic flying the tricolor flag ever since.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, the history of the French flag. Who would have guessed such a simple flag would have such a complex history? Nevertheless, my prayers are with the people of Paris in their time of mourning.

Vive Paris, vive la Fance, vive la liberté, l’égalité et la fraternité!

2 Responses to The History of the French Flag

  1. auntleesie says:

    Awesome. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: The Origins of the Union Jack | Cat Flag

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