Today’s flag, that of France,
continues the theme of the countries mentioned in the opening of one of our favorite Broadway plays, The Book of Mormon.
Suffice it say that, at least for the Mormon missionary boys, their ideas about France are that it is “the land of pastries and turtlenecks!” That is as may be, and having been to France several times, I can concur that the pastries, especially the pain au chocolate,
are truly divine, I can’t say that I saw a great many, or even any, turtlenecks. Didn’t those go out in the 1970s anyway? If so, France is MUCH too fashion forward to be repeating mistakes of a previous era. And, if the boys were by chance referring to the slang use of “turtleneck” to refer to an uncircumcised penis,
well, that would be true of all of Europe, and actually most of the non-Jewish and non-United States world, so I’m going with the fashion interpretation. The boys also declare that “Satan has a hold of France; we will knock him off his perch!” So, you can’t believe everything they say or think with their absolute conviction.
While we know that the area now known as France was settled by pre-literate people for thousands of years prior to a written history because of the famous cave paintings
left behind, the written history referencing any part of what is today France first appears in the Iron Age, around 500-300BCE and results from both the Greeks and Phoenicians settling the area near today’s Marseilles. In Roman times, the bulk of what is today France was called Gaul and it represented something of a western frontier land. France, or the area we now call France came under the rule of Charlemagne following the dissolution of the Roman Empire. It was in this time that the first use of any place name remotely resembling today’s France appeared as the area was known as West Francia while under the rule of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire.
By 987 a French royal house had been founded by Hugh Capet and the earliest beginnings of the Kingdom of France were laid.
As is true of much of Europe during medieval times, war and disease were commonplace facts of life. War would dominate much of French history right up to the end of World War II. Perhaps the two most famous conflicts in French history are the revolution of 1789 and the multiple reigns of the Emperor Napoleon
until his ultimate defeat and exile to the British island of Saint Helena
French history is lengthy and complex. One could spend years and go through hundreds of volumes in an attempt to better comprehend it all, but for our purposes a broad outline will suffice. For those who are interested in a more detailed, and yet still accessible summary of French history, look here.
What really truly concerns us is how the modern tricolor flag of today’s France came to be.
Blue and white, at least, have been signature colors of the French flag from the earliest times. The flags of the Kingdom of France varied over time but usually included blue fields with gold fleurs-de-lis
although white background fields were also used at times.
Red appeared originally in the earliest of the recorded flags of France and made occasionally appearances over the years. Images of the various early flags of France can be viewed here.
The first tricolor flag that closely resembles that flag of today was used from 1790 to 1794 during the First Republic period. The major difference was that the red field was on the hoist side while today’s flag has the positions of red and blue reversed, with blue on the hoist side.
The tricolor has its origins in the flag of the city of Paris which was blue and red, with blue on the hoist side.
Interestingly, at least to me, this exact flag configuration has also been attributed to the Phoenicians, whom you will recall settled in the south of France near modern day Marseilles. Perhaps there is a connection? This arrangement is also echoed in the modern flag of Haiti, which we will get to eventually. During the revolution, partisans would wear red and blue “cockades,”
which are circular rosette-like emblems attached to a hat. These colors were most famously worn during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.
The white was added at the suggestion of Lafayette, properly known as Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette felt that the addition of the white stripe would serve to make the flag more representative of the French nation as a whole instead of emphasizing Paris over the rest of the nation. This Lafayette is the same man familiar to students of United States history as he fought on the side of the American rebels in the American War of Independence and was a personal friend of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Lafayette carried his revolutionary ideals back home with him, and despite being a member of the hated aristocracy, his service to the revolution protected him from Madame L’Guillontine.
With the exception of the period from 1815 to 1830, during the restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty following the final defeat of Napoleon, when the official flag of the restored French kingdom was a simple white field, the blue, white, and red tricolor flag has remained the flag of France since 1789 forward.
Join us as we move forward on a theme of France with the flags of the numerous former colonies of France that have decided on political, social, and economic union with France as “part of overseas France” instead of pursuing, at least thus far, independence.