As distinctive marks and signs of authority, the seals were used over the centuries by both private individuals and civil or religious governing bodies. Today, the seal is only used on very rare and solemn occasions, in particular when signing the Constitution or its amendments. The seal created in 1848 for the Second Republic still remains in use today.
Under the Ancien Régime, the Chancellor, one of the Great Officers of the Crown, was responsible for the physical custody of the registers of the seals and presided over the sealing of the documents. He was appointed for life and was the second-highest dignitary in the kingdom after the Constable. Upon the King’s death, when the seal of the deceased was broken as part of the ritual, he was exempt from wearing mourning.
In 1718, he was provided with a residence at a townhouse in Place Vendôme, Paris, which is still used today by the modern-day Keeper of the Seals, the Minister of Justice.
During the Revolution, Louis XVI’s golden seal was melted down. A decree in 1792 for the first time defined the appearance of the new seal of the Republic: a woman standing with a pike in her hand and a cap in the shape of a beehive resting atop it, and a lictor’s fasces in her other hand.
On Napoleon’s seal, bees and the imperial crown can be seen. Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X used an iconography of fleurs-de-lis similar to that of the Ancien Régime. Meanwhile Louis Philippe added the tricolour flag and the coat of arms of the House of Orléans.
The seal of the Second Republic, which is still used today, was defined via decree on 8 September 1848. The currency engraver, Jean-Jacques Barré, took liberties with the terms of the decree, particularly as regards the positioning of the inscriptions. A seated lady, the Goddess of Liberty, holds a lictor’s fasces in her right hand, while her left elbow leans on a ship’s tiller with an engraving of a rooster with its foot on a globe. An urn bearing the initials SU recalls the establishment of direct universal suffrage in 1848. At the feet of Liberty, items of fine arts and agriculture can be seen.
The seal bears the inscription “One and indivisible democratic French Republic” on the obverse side and two inscriptions on the reverse, “In the name of the French people” and “Equality, Fraternity”.
The 1848 decree also defines the type of seal or stamps which should be commonly used by courts and notaries.
The Third, Fourth and Fifth Republics also used this seal. Under the Fourth Republic, it appears that only the Constitution was sealed. Since 1958, the Constitution and some of the constitutional laws amending it have taken on a more formal look with a seal of yellow wax hanging from a silk tricolour ribbon. That was particularly the case for constitutional law no. 2008-724 of 23 July 2008 on the modernization of the institutions of the Fifth Republic.
The press used to imprint the seal on the wax is kept in the office of the Minister of Justice, who is still known as the “Keeper of the Seals”.