Le Drapeau Tricolore: How France Got its Flag

French tricolore
French drapeau tricolore PhotoXpress

Today, in homage to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13th November, President Hollande has asked people to hang the French national flag, le drapeau tricolore, from their homes. We don’t have one and, where we live, few people would see it, but I can do it symbolically via this post. And, as often happens, this spurred me to find out more about the origins of a national emblem that we tend to take for granted.

Identifying other countries’ flags is one of those post-Christmas lunch games at which I’m hopeless. However, after the Union Jack, le drapeau tricolore is one of those I was able to recognise from an early age.

Le drapeau tricolore is ubiquitous in France. It hangs from public buildings and war memorials and graces official correspondence. And, of course, it is emblazoned across rugby and football fans’ faces.

War memorial at Parisot
War memorial at Parisot

Bleu-blanc-rouge symbolism

Apologies for the simplification below but it’s more complicated than I had at first supposed and several interpretations of the symbolism exist.

The three vertical stripes of equal width – from the flagpole: blue, white and red – are deeply rooted in France’s history. According to some interpretations, blue was identified with Saint Martin, who has long been associated with French royal heritage. Red represented Saint Denis, a martyred bishop of Paris. White symbolised the Virgin Mary and was later the colour of Joan of Arc’s standard.

The pre-revolutionary royal flag was commonly a blue coat of arms, featuring gold fleur de lys, on a white background. Blue and red are the traditional colours of the city of Paris. Revolutionaries wore blue and red cockades (rosette-like ribbons) on their hats and, to symbolise a break with the past, the First French Republic adopted a tricolore in October 1790. However, the colours were red-white-blue, and were reversed in February 1794.

Following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, the tricolore was abandoned in favour of a white royalist flag. It was adopted again following the July 1830 revolution and has remained the national flag ever since, symbolising the republic.

The Vichy government retained the flag during World War II, but dropped the word republic. Pétain added an axe to the white section and used it as his personal standard as head of the French state. The use of le drapeau tricolore was enshrined in the constitution of the 5th Republic in 1958. Today, the three colours represent the Republic’s key principles – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Ancien combatants bearing le tricolore at the 11th November ceremony
Ancien combatants bearing le drapeau tricolore at the 11th November ceremony

Regional flags

France may have a national flag, but each of its regions has their own as well. Our region, Midi-Pyrénees, was created only in the 20th century but nonetheless has a certain identity, since much of it was ruled from Toulouse in the Middle Ages. Its flag is the Occitan cross, below. However, it will merge with neighbouring Languedoc-Roussillon in 2016 as part of the rationalisation of the 22 mainland regions to 13. Interesting to see which flag the hybrid region adopts.

Occitan flag – the symbol of the Midi-Pyrénées Region
Nimlar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You might also like:

Anniversary of La Marseillaise – or Should that be La Strasbourgeoise?
Bastille Day
What Symbolises France?
May 1st – la fête du travail in France

Copyright © 2015 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. We too are becoming a new super-region next year as we merge with Rhone Alpes. That I worry about the future for the smaller, more remote and far poor Auvergne is inevitable …. I am now wondering what will become of our drapeau. This was a fascinating read and prompts me to find out more. It is also a lasting and appropriate demonstration of M. Hollande’s call.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Vanessa … I had wondered, but there my wonderings stopped. I only found out about the Occitan flag the other day as I saw it flying outside a farm entrance, but with a clenched fist at the top of the cross. At Laguepie, we saw the same flag on the wall but without the fist. A nice man told us it was the Occitan flag, but I still don’t know about the fist! I’ll now have to explore that one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen the clenched fist before, but I suspect it might represent Occitan separatism. Until the authorities erected separate village signs around here with the Occitan name in addition to the French name, you sometimes saw the French version painted out and the Occitan name in its place. A bit like Corsica, where you see the Corsican spelling superimposed over the French one all over the place.


  3. That’s interesting. And I’d heard yet another different explanation: that the red represented the Bourbons, the blue the Revolutionaries, and white la paix entre les deux.

    We’re all behind France and its efforts – hopefully we’ll be of more help soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this; yes, I came across that as well. Red was formerly associated with the monarchy, but the Bourbons took the white flag when they were restored in 1815. As I said in the post, it does get complicated!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Our region is “new” in its present state, but the flag is ancient and represented the arms of the Count of Toulouse from the time of the crusades. It’s been used to represent our region from the days we were part of the original Languedoc. Technically we were the Haut-Languedoc and the coast was the Bas-Languedoc. When we merge there’s a chance we keep the same flag as historically we were part of the same county 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the extra info. There are certainly affinities between the two regions, but I wonder how the folk of Montpellier feel about the fact that Toulouse will probably be the capital of the new region…


  5. Thank you. I am French and did not know the history of the tricolore. I live in the U.S. in the state of New Mexico, new to your blog and looking forward to reading more comments and insights about life in France.
    My condeolances to the victims families, to France and to my French compatriots regarding the attack in Paris on November 13.

    Peace to all.


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