Quick History of the French Flag

The French Flag is today one of the most recognizable territorial symbols in the world.

It joins global flag popularity alongside the likes of the United States, Italy and the Union Jack of the United Kingdom.

France’s flag has become a representation of great power and even greater class. You’ll often see marketing campaigns around the world incorporating the Tricolore into visuals wherever relevant.

However the Tricolore wasn’t always the symbol for the French. France has had her fair share of flags over the years, something we can better understand as we move backward in history…

by Mahkeo – Unsplash

The Flag Throughout History

The earliest history of the French Flag can be traced right back to the Middle Ages.

The first one in recorded history was the Oriflamme: a skinny, vertical banner that required poles to hold it up and not the wind. The Oriflamme was bright red and could be seen in multiple battles of the time involving the Kingdom of France.

Throughout French history, the flag was known to have changed depending on who was in power at the time. Most of the flags in very early history were simply the crests of the families who found themselves in rule.

Oriflamme – by Steifer – Wikimedia Commons

It was only when the Bourbons ascended into power that they changed things up a bit. Believing that they were the epitome of purity and royal authority, the flag was changed to a pure white rectangle.

Sometimes, the coat of arms of the family was included on the white background, but this was not common. The Royal House of Bourbon maintained this flag choice from 1814 to 1830, and are actually the reason why the centerpiece of today’s flag is white to this day.

Bear in mind, with all the home soil flag changes going on, France was also out in the world invading existing territories and making them their own. Each of these generally obtained a flag of sorts in the process.

New France was a region in America that was occupied by France. They were assigned a similar white flag to the one the Bourbon’s used, with a slightly different crest in the center.

The Current French Flag

As of 1848, today’s French flag is officially used both in the homeland and in all of the colonies around the globe.

It took much debate back and fourth to get to this point, and the design has been tweaked slightly a number of times.

The current French flag is known as the Tricolore. This basically means three colors, which is a good way of summarizing the design of it, I’d say. France’s flag features three equally spaced vertical panels in the colors of blue, white and red (in that order: left to right).

by Anthony Choren – Unsplash

The motivation for this new flag came about during the French Revolution; a time during which France saw immense change in terms of governance and socio-economic structure.

Much of the uprising took place at street level, and civilians would don blue and white rosettes on their clothing as a symbol of like-minded unity. 1789 saw the formation of the National Guard, at which point the chief of police added the color red into the existing rosettes.

This was the first time that the “tricolore” was used to represent unity in France, especially amongst the people.

The Constituent Assembly gathered on 24 October 1790 and approved the request for a new, simple flag featuring three vertical panels in the three respective colors.

by Avery Evans – Unsplash

Initially, the colors were actually reversed, with red being first, then white, then blue. The proportions of the panels were also experimented with for a while, and it was eventually decide that appropriate dimensions were 30:33:37.

It was only when Napoleon came into power that the colors were reversed and the portions spaced evenly. However in 1853 a regulation had to be passed allowing the French Navy to readopt the old, disproportionate version of the flag as it worked better for depth perception over large distances at sea.

Temporary Removal of the Tricolore

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Tricolore. When Napoleon was removed from power in 1815, the Bourbon dynasty was restored.

They brought with them the reintegration of that plain white flag from all those years ago, but the people were not having it.

The Tricolore had become such a strong symbol of change and revolution over the years, and most civilians refused to adopt the new (old) white flag. Eventually, in 1830, King Louis-Philippe came into power thanks to the July Revolution and promptly restored the Tricolore to its rightful place in society. 

by Mahkeo – Unsplash

A Flag to Inspire the Masses

France set the pace for Tricolore flags around the world. The nation proved to grow more and more powerful over the centuries, bar one or two setbacks here and there, and the flag grew along with it.

Other European nations took note, and it is thought that France is the reason so many eventually adopted three-colored flags of their own. Italy and Germany being prime examples.

There are also a lot of countries in Africa who drew their own inspiration from the Tricolore. Nigeria, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire amongst them.

by Christian Wiediger – Unsplash

It is traditional for each color in a Tricolore flag to represent something significant to the country. In France, the blue, white and red represent represent liberty, equality and fraternity respectively.

The white panel has additional significance, relating back to the Bourbon rule as well as holding widely perceived symbolism of the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc.

The red and blue also have their own separate symbolism tied to the French capital of Paris. These colors have always been considered the tones of the city, so having them reflected in the national flag was of great importance.

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