The Tricolor French Flag

Over the centuries, since long before Charlemagne, France has flown many flags. Typically, when conjuring up an image of the French Flag, we think of the Fleurs-dis-Lis- three gold lilies on a blue shield. However, the ‘drapeau tricolore’ or ‘drapeau bleu-blanc-rouge’ is now the official French flag.

Fleur De Lys
Fleur De Lys

With its vertical blue, white, and red bands, the Tricolor French Flag was adopted in 1790, after the French Revolution of 1789, and then made the official flag by the French National Convention on February 15, 1794. But it has not represented the country without disruption.

Under the Tricolor French Flag, Napoleon I led France through war and battle after battle until the nation dominated parts of North Africa and most of the western world. Then in 1814, the Bourbon’s re-seized power and all symbols of the revolution were replaced with those of the Bourbons. After intrigues and betrayal, the July Revolution of 1830, put King Louis-Philippe on the throne, who resurrected the ‘drapeau tricolore’.

French Flag
The order of the colors has sometimes changed, and explanations for the colors vary. Blue and red are the traditional colors of the arms of Paris, and, ironically, white is color of the Bourbon dynasty. The blue is sometimes referred to as strong blue, or, again ironically, as King’s blue.

Its simple design, with the blue band at the hoist, followed by two more equal-sized bands, one of white, then a red “fly” (the outer band), is said to represent the common people, a reaction to the monarchy and the elaborate royal coats of arms found on pre-revolutionary flags. The revolutionary motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité , or liberty, equality and brotherhood, is closely associated with the Tricolor French Flag.

According to Whitney Smith, flag scholar and founder of the Flag Research Center in Winchester Massachusetts, the Tricolor French Flag “has no specific symbolism attached to the individual colors and shapes in its design” and that all symbolism was attached to it in retrospect. Yet, speculation abounds.

Sometimes the colors are thought to be influenced by those of the American Revolution, and also by Holland, but there are other explanations. With France being traditionally Catholic, blue is said to be the color of Saint Martin, a Gallo-Roman officer who ripped his blue cloak with his sword to give one half of it to a poor cold beggar. Red is the color of Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, and white, in this manner of thinking, represents the Virgin Mary.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (2002-2005) consistently and poetically referred to the colors as “the blue of our history, the white of our hopes, and the red of the blood of our ancestors”. As influenced as it may be by ideas and idealism, the Tricolor is equally influential, with post-colonial and post-revolutionary countries all over world either using either the blue, white, and red, or the Tricolor French Flag‘s banded style to represent freedom from tyranny.

–Carol Frome

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