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The Long & Surprising History and Origins of the French Flag

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Last Updated on 16th June 2020 by Sophie Nadeau

Also known as the French Tricolore, the French Flag has a long history, which I’ll be discussing today. If you’ve ever been to Europe, then no doubt you’ll soon recognise one of the most iconic emblems of France. Characterised by its red, white, and blue appearance, the three colour flag of l’Hexagone is synonymous with France. And for those who are curious… it’s worth knowing that ‘flag’ is known as ‘drapeau’ in French…

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What does the flag of France look like?

The French flag should be horizontally orientated when displayed, and should be made at a ratio of 2:3 when it comes to proportions. Rather curiously, though the red, white, and blue parts of the flag are all within proportion to one another, when the flag was first created, it was stipulated that the flag be at a ratio of 30 parts (blue), 33 parts (white) and 37 parts (red).

Luckily for us, this was soon dropped and so it’s much easier to reproduce the flag today! However, as you may well have discovered for yourself when taking in pub quizzes and trivia rounds, many flags of the world can look similar to one another.

For example, the stripes of the French flag are displayed in a vertical fashion of blue, followed by white, and then red. As such, the French flag should not be confused with similar looking flags such as that of Luxembourg (which has a slightly lighter blue) and that of the Netherlands. These flags are also blue, white, and then red, though the stripes are displayed horizontally as opposed to vertically. 

paris pantheon view

A History of the French Flag

Prior to the French Tricolore, French kings would have used varying versions of golden flowers (known in French as the fleur de lys) on a blue background during the 12th-century. The flag would have been displayed as a banner by Louis VII when he was leaving for the crusade of 1147.

The original flag would have comprised of many golden fleur-de-lys emblems scattered across a blue background. Soon enough, this was dropped in favour of three fleur-de-lys, a representation of the Holy Trinity. This three fleur-de-lys flag (which can also be spelt fleur-de-lis) was in use right up until the 19th-century.

In urban legend, the fleur-de-lys has been around ever since the birth of Clovis in the 5th-century CE, which is also why the French monarchy many centuries later chose to use it as their symbol. In the legend, the three toads on Clovis’ shield were replaced by three fleur-de-lys, which were given by an angel. If you are familiar with French Canada, then you will know that the flag of Québec (French Canada) is four white fleur de lis lilies (sometimes referred to as the fleurdelisé).

quebec flag

Back to the history of the French flag… During the 14th-century, when the Bourbon family ruled France, the French typically wore white, which was stark in contrast to what the English would have worn (white with a red cross, such as that on the English flag today). White is the official colour of the House of Bourbon and golden fleur-de-lys would have been used to decorate the flag, depending on the situation.

The interesting history behind the current French flag originates all the way back during the French Revolution, which occurred from 1789 to 1799, with the flag we see today being officially adopted on February 15, 1794.

You see, when the Bastille was stormed by insurgents on July 13th, 1789, they were wearing ribbons of red and blue (which are the official colours of Paris). When the New National Police force was created, in July of 1789, a rosette of blue, white, and red was used as its emblem, likely the first official use of the tricolour French palette. 

Although it may surprise you, the French flag as we know it today wouldn’t have been in use that much during the French Revolution. Though the flag has been used since the 18th-century, with the brief reinstatement of the Bourbon family from 1814-1830, the flag was dropped in favour of the Bourbon flag of white with golden fleur-de-lis. The most current version of the flag has been in use since 1830, i.e. when the original French Revolution flag was modified and the monarchy was no longer in power. 

A History of the French Flag

What do the colours of the French flag mean?

Of course, there is a reason why blue, white, and red have since come to represent France. The use of blue symbolises liberty, equality and fraternity (the motto of France stems from the French revolution and, in French, is liberté, égalité, fraternité). Next, white, as previously mentioned, is the colour of the House of Bourbon, while red is used because the dual palette of red and blue is used to symbolise Paris, the French capital city.  

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The Long & Surprising History and Origins of the French Flag

About Author

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, Paris, pizza, and history, though not necessarily in that order. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she's not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming her weight in sweet food. Currently based in Paris after studies in London, she's spent most of her life living in the beautiful Devonian countryside in South West England!

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