Tricolore: 5 things to know about the French flag

The French flag
The blue, white and red French flag. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP
One of the world's most recognisable flags, the French blue, white and red tricolore has a complicated history and a sometimes turbulent present.

1 You’ll see it a lot

The French like their flag and they don’t care who knows it. The tricolore flies from all French government buildings, this includes government ministries and the parliament, but also all public buildings such as local government offices, mairies and all schools.

It will be in the background of all formal announcements by ministers and government officials as well as at less formal occasions such as sports matches.

French sports fans like to drape themselves in the flag and you’ll also see it a lot on demos or protests as people carry the flag to underline their political points.

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French Prime Minister Jean Castex makes a speech, with the French and EU flags in the background. Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

2 It’s rarely alone

While the French flag is widely displayed, on most official buildings it is accompanied by the EU flag. The same is true for official announcements, formal staged press conferences and TV briefings. Invariably both the tricolore and the EU flag will hang in the background. 

On special occasions the French flag and EU flag can be joined by a third flag on official buildings such as town halls. For example, the rainbow-striped LGBTQI flag is widely flown around France during Pride month.

On public holidays, official buildings add extra, smaller tricolore flags alongside the usual French and EU flags, just to add a sense of festivity, while in some towns buses and trams carry flags on public holidays.

On November 11th and May 8th (public holidays to mark Armistice Day and VE Day) extra flags are added to war memorials around the country.

French flags on a demonstration against the Covid health pass. Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

3 It’s revolutionary

The flag as we know it today comes from the French Revolution with the current design – blue next to the flagpole, white and then red – formally adopted on February 15th 1794.

The blue and white colours came from the cockades worn by the revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille while the white was the symbol of the French monarchy.

The French tricolore has not had an uninterrupted journey though. The complicated post-Revolutionary history of France, which saw it alternate between republic, monarchy, republic, dictatorship etc. meant that the tricolore was removed from circulation several times because it was too closely associated with the Revolution.

4 Its blue is changeable

Changes to the French flag are not only a historical phenomenon, however, the exact shade of blue used in the flag has changed twice in modern times.

The blue was originally bleu marine (navy blue) but in 1976 then-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing switched to a brighter blue to match the colour of the EU flag – yellow stars on a blue background.

But in 2018 president Emmanuel Macron signed off on an initiative to change the colour back to its original navy.

The colour “evokes the memory” of the heroes who fought in the French Revolution, the trenches of World War I and in the Resistance during World War II, according to one Elysée official.

It was also suggested that the bleu marine is “more elegant”.

Since 2018 the Elysée has been using the darker flag – although it took until 2021 for anyone to notice – but other public buildings have retained their brighter blue flag.

5 It once featured the French coq

An early iteration of the flag featured the Gallic rooster. During the restoration of the monarchy, king Louis-Philippe introduced a version of the tricolore, surmounting it with the coq français.

This proved short-lived (as did the attempt to bring back the monarchy).

Today the French cockerel has no official status as a symbol of France, but is widely used including on the jerseys of French national sports teams, in bar and restaurant signs and on the heads of French sports fans.

French fans sporting Gallic rooster hats. Photo by JEAN CHRISTOPHE MAGNENET / AFP

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  1. What does the red represent on the flag? I see white is ascribed to two different symbols. Perhaps one of those explanations was for the red color on the flag?

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