What the French Flag Colors Represent

Updated December 3, 2021
French flag with Paris on the background

Although the colors of the French flag are the same as the American and the British flag -- red, white, and blue -- you may wonder what the French flag colors represent. Throughout the years, there have been various interpretations of what the flag's colors actually mean.

The French Flag

The French flag contains three vertical stripes of equal width. From the flagstaff to the end, these colors are blue, white, and red. More than 20 countries use these three colors in their flag, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The Flag's Historic Roots

Encyclopædia Britannica notes the meaning of the flag's colors relate to France's revolutionary history and its aristocracy. The country's pre-revolutionary flag had a white background with a blue shield and the gold Fleur-de-lis with the royal coat of arms. The design was simplified after the French Revolution to support the new values of the nation, and thus the tri-color flag was used.

The Meaning Behind France's Tricolor Flag

The colors of the flag combine two elements: the royal white and the revolutionary red and blue.

Phrygian cap with tricolor cockade

White

White is the traditional color of the House of Bourbon, a French familial line which ruled in France from the late 16th century until it was overthrown during the French Revolution in the late 18th century. On the flag, the color white represents the King, and was first added to the red and blue pattern by the famous Marquis de Lafayette.

Red and Blue

Spiral cockades of alternating blue and red were worn by revolutionaries during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, first seen adorning their hats and vests as they stormed the Bastille in 1789. The red on these accessories was meant to represent Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris, and the blue in honor of the venerated Saint Martin. Once the revolutionaries took hold of the French government, a new flag was born, integrating this iconic revolutionary motif.

Other Interpretations

Aside from France's official explanation of the flag's colors, you may find many other interpretations, as well. Some popular but non-official interpretations include:

  • The colors symbolize nobility (blue), clergy (white), and bourgeois (red), which were the three estates of the body politic in early modern France.
  • When the Tricolor was formally adopted in 1794, its colors symbolized the values of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, brotherhood, democracy, secularism, and modernization. Today, that motto has been shortened to Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, which translates to Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood.
  • One popular interpretation suggests the colors may have also symbolized important people in French history. Along with the conventional interpretations about the blue and red symbolic origins, some contest the white representing the monarchy; rather, they believe it symbolizes the Virgin Mary or Joan of Arc.

Momentous Changes in the Flag's Appearance

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, recently reverted the flag's official shade of blue from a bright hue to the deep navy blue that was used during the French Revolution. While some governmental departments and military contingents still flew flags featuring this shade of blue long after its switch, most people have flown a French flag with a brighter blue than the original color since 1976. Interestingly, this change was made with aesthetics in mind as it was altered to match Europe's blue flag. This way, when the two flags were flown together, they'd have a visual cohesion that allied with the political messages of continental unity being spread.

The French flag on the Elysee Palace

The Symbol of a Nation

The history behind the French Tricolor is just one of the many interesting facts about France that exhibit the country's tumultuous and exciting history. As with other nations, France's flag is highly symbolic of the nation's core values, and remains a globally recognized symbol today.

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