Why is French flag, blue, white and red?

27 February 2019
By Connexion journalist

Did you know?

The three coloured French Flag was born with the Revolution. Prior to that the royal flag was white.

At the storming of the Bastille, the revolutionaries wore the blue and red colours of Paris in a cockade on their hats.

These colours were combined to unite the Old France represented by the white with the New France represented by the blue and red. In his memoires, La Fayette recounts that three days after the Bastille was taken he ordered Louis XVI to appear at the Paris City Hall wearing a three coloured cockade as a sign of the “noble and eternal alliance between the monarchy and the people.”

This is the accepted version of the story of the beginnings of the French flag given on the Elysée website, but even this site admits that no-one is quite sure of the truth, and says the many stories make “the birth of the flag more picturesque, even poetic as many famous men, have, as we say, leaned over the cradle to explain its colours.”

The Elysée goes on to say that 1790 was the first time the colours were applied to a flag. This was for merchant and war ships and there were three bands, with the red nearest to the flagpole.

They had to be vertical as the Dutch had been flying horizontal red, white and blue stripes for nearly a century. The flag had unequal stripes, with a wider central white band.

In 1794 the final design for the national flag was given, this time with the blue stripe nearest to the flagpole and the red stripe “floating in the air.” Legend has it that it was the painter Louis David who chose the order of the colours.

The bands are of equal size, except for the Navy where the percentages are 30% blue, 33% white and 37% red.

White continued to be the royalist colour and the tricolour disappeared between 1814 and 1830, but was restored during the later reign of Louis Philippe. When he was overthrown to be replaced by the Second Republic, the revolutionaries demanded a red flag. The tricolour was saved by a famous speech from leading republican, Lamartine in 1848:

“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.”

During the Second World War, the flag was temporarily modified by both the Free French Forces who added the Red Cross of Lorraine on the white band, and by Vichy Chief of State Maréchal Pétain, who adorned the white stripe with a star-studded marshal’s baton.

The latest change to the flag was in 1976 when President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing lightened the blue and the red to make them more televisual.

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