The history of the French flag: Your guide to le Tricolore

The history of the French flag: Your guide to le Tricolore

by Clara Avrillier

Updated February 21, 2023

The national flag of France, also known as le Tricolore, is one of the most iconic flags in the world. The flag’s rich history dates back centuries and remains an important part of French culture and heritage. Nothing less than a symbol of French pride and identity, le Tricolore can be found in town halls across the country and is prominently displayed during national holidays, sporting events and French political rallies. In this guide, we’ll explore the meaning and history of the French flag, from what the colors represent to why this national symbol has endured. 

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Origins of the French flag 

The French flag’s history dates back to the late 18th century. You might be surprised to learn that, prior to this date, the French flag was completely different. The original flag was blue and featured the stylized image of a lily known in French as the fleur-de-lis, which served as the Royal Arms of France. It was only in 1794, a few years after the French Revolution, that the government sought to create a new national symbol. Thus, le Tricolore was born.

French flag colors and their meaning

The French flag comprises three vertical stripes of blue, white and red. White was selected to represent the French monarchy, while blue and red were chosen as references to the traditional colors of Paris (which still feature prominently on the flag of Paris).

White has always been a color associated with the monarchy. From the 15th century onwards, the House of Bourbon ruled France and white was its official color, so many people of the time naturally wore white. The other two colors of the French flag — blue and red — have different meanings depending on whom you ask. 

Some say each of the three colors represents part of France’s national motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). Others say the colors represent core values: blue for duty and care, white for peace, and red for courage and bravery. 

A battle over shades of blue

When le Tricolore was officially named the national flag of France in 1974, the shade of blue used was a dark navy blue. However, in 1974, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing updated it to a lighter blue that more closely aligns with the Flag of Europe. 

In 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron quietly modified the shade back to the navy blue version. Some people were outraged as no official statement was provided by the Élysée Palace. Others argued that the navy blue (which differs from the European Union flag) could be interpreted as an anti-EU gesture. 

Nowadays, both shades of blue are used and considered essentially interchangeable. Our advice? Pick whichever you prefer.

A turbulent history

Although the French flag was written into the National Convention in 1794, it has survived a turbulent history and numerous threats to its existence. Here are just a few moments when the flag was either altered or threatened:

  • During the reign of Napoleon, a golden emblem was added to the center of the flag as a symbol of the French Empire. This was later removed after Napoleon’s downfall. 
  • When the House of Bourbon came back into power from 1814 to 1830, the colors blue and red were temporarily removed from the flag. White once again reigned supreme.
  • In 1830, le Tricolore was re-established. It has remained the national flag of France ever since.

An enduring symbol of French identity

As with many traditions in France, the French flag has a rich and interesting history. Sure, it has undergone several changes over the years, but the tricolor version we know today has become an iconic part of the country and a symbol of French identity across the world. Our bet? It’s not going away anytime soon, so feel free to plaster your walls and desktop screensaver with blue, white and red (if it helps you learn French, of course).

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Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with expats looking to move to France. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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