The national emblem of the Fifth Republic, the tricolour flag, came about during the French Revolution, by combining the colour of the king (white) with those of Paris (blue and red). Today, the French tricolour can be seen on all public buildings. It is used for most official ceremonies, both civilian and military.

Cérémonie de commémoration du 8 mai 1945 sous l'Arc de Triomphe à Paris, le 8 mai 2019
© Présidence de la République

A brief history

No historian has yet proved the definitive origin of the tricolour. The doubts over its history leave the door open to poetic legends: it is said that many illustrious men were involved in adorning it with its colours.  

Before it was a flag, the tricolour was a cockade.  As the story goes, Louis XVI was invited to the City Hall three days after the storming of the Bastille, where he received a tricolour cockade from La Fayette, who declared: “This is a cockade which will travel the world”. White represents the monarchy, while blue and red represent the colours of the city of Paris, which according to the mayor, are signs of “the noble and eternal alliance between the monarch and the people”.  The tricolour cockade thus became a symbol of patriotism and began to appear on lapels.

In autumn 1790, the Constituent Assembly ruled that all French warships and merchant vessels should fly a flag with three vertical strips: red near the flagpole, white in the middle with a wider strip than the others, and blue on the outside. The vertical strips distinguished it from the Dutch flag, whose red, white and blue colours had already been flying on Dutch vessels for over a century. 

The tricolour only took on its definitive form on 15 February 1794 (27 pluviôse year II) when the national convention decreed that the national flag “will comprise three national colours, in vertical strips, with blue attached to the mast of the ship, white in the middle and red floating in the air”.  Legend has it that painter Louis David chose the order of the colours. 

Léon Cogniet, Pièce allégorique sur les différents drapeaux de la France : [estampe]
Léon Cogniet, Pièce allégorique sur les différents drapeaux de la France : [estampe] © Bibliothèque nationale de France

But the tricolour was threatened several times.  Its blue and red were removed when the monarchy was restored from 1814 to 1830, with only the royal white remaining. The tricolour was proudly restored during the “Three Glorious Days” of 27, 28 and 29 July 1830, heralded as a sign of Republican unity against Charles X. Louis-Philippe agreed to bring back the blue, white and red flag, proclaiming that “the nation has restored its colours”. 

On 25 February 1848, during the proclamation of the Republic, the rebels wanted a completely red flag. It was Lamartine who, as a poet, was able to find the words, and as a politician, was able to galvanize the crowd in order to save the national flag.

... the tricolour has toured the world with the Republic and the Empire with your freedoms and your glory. [...] If you take away the tricolour, understand that you will remove half the external force of France, because Europe knows the flag of its defeats and of our victories in the flag of the Republic and the Empire. By seeing the red flag, they'll see the flag of a party! This is the flag of France, it is the flag of our victorious armies, it is the flag of our triumphs that must be raised before Europe.  France and the tricolour is the same thought, the same prestige, even terror, if necessary, for our enemies!

Alphonse de Lamartine

Its turbulent history, marked by both major historical events and fascinating stories, its many depictions in fictional and factual works and its deeply symbolic colours combining hot and cold have placed it at the heart of the French identity. Today, it is the only national emblem defined in Article 2 of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic.