At the heart of symbolism

The French flag

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The French flag

A little piece of History

It is commonly accepted that the Marquis de Lafayette was at the origin of the tricolour cockade, which became compulsory for revolutionaries in 1789. The flag was created in 1790 but with the colours the reverse of what they are today, i.e. with red at the hoist, and revised in 1794 to the modern form.

The flag went out of use with Napoleon's abdication after the French defeat or English victory at Waterloo. It was brought back with the 1830 riots, again by Lafayette and has remained in use ever since.

Marquis de Lafayette's graveThe Marquis was buried in Paris Picpus cemetery devoted to the noble victims of the revolution and their relatives. His body was laid in the tomb of his wife's family, Adrienne de Noailles, who was put into prison during the Terror and condemned to the guillotine. Her grandmother, mother and sister were beheaded, but Adrienne was saved at the last moment, thanks mainly to the American intervention. When the revolution was over, she fought with her last energy to restore her property rights and to help her husband who had spent five years in an Austrian jail. The United-States flag on the grave is a tribute from the Americans to a Frenchman who fought for the independence of the colonies 1.

The colours of the flag

Paris' coat of armsAccording to common popular belief, the tricolour banner gathers the colours of Paris (red and blue) with the white flag of the royal army 2. Combinations of revolutionary and royal emblems were common at that time.

Red is the “upper arch” and blue the “lower arch” of the rainbow primary colours. As such, they may be respectively related to the “highest” and “smallest” ranks of the society functions. Red is usually associated with the noble warrior (representative of the temporal power) and blue with craftsman and producer (representatives of the economic power). Therefore, red and blue correspond to the two main royal and economic functions of the city of Paris. Both colours stand on each side of the white colour, which covers the whole spectrum of the visible light. As such, white, encompassing the two fundamental colours related to the temporal order, represents the sacerdotal authority, the role of which consists in unifying the different social orders.

It is possible that this division into three functions (religious, royal and economical) reflects the theoretical organization of the traditional societies gathered under the term Indo-European. Indeed, these societies were organized around three functions related to three symbolic colours: white for priests, red for warriors and blue or green for craftsmen and producers (see, especially, the Celtic tradition).

Consequently, the three colours of the French flag seem to be connected to the division of the Ancient Regime society into three classes, mainly clergy, nobility and third state. At that time, peasants constituted the main part of the population, but were considered as simple workers. Their migration to the city to be employed as workers started with the industrial development. The industrial and political revolution was principally an urban matter in the hands of the so-called “bourgeoisie”. That is probably why blue, at the hoist, comes first in the colour enumeration.

1 back It is probably the only United States flag that had continuously fluttered over Paris since 1834, including under the German Occupation during the Second World War.

2 back The armorial bearings of the town of Paris are trimmed with an oak and a bay branch, the emblems of the Legion of Honour represented at the bottom of the coat of arms, a decoration given to the town in 1900.