7 Leading French Symbols and Their Role in France Today

7 Leading French Symbols and Their Role in France Today

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Ask anyone what represents France and you will probably get a diverse range of answers. But some French symbols definitively represent the country and have been officially endorsed by the government.

If you’re scratching your head wondering what they are, we’ve got all you need to know with this guide to the 7 most important French symbols. To help you understand their significance, we’ve added little insight into their origins and role in modern French society.

The Most Prominent Symbols of France

We get started with the French symbols that are known throughout the world. Those inescapably French icons ever-present at national events and great sporting occasions.

Le drapeau tricolore — the French flag

Le Drapeau Français, the French flag, is the defining symbol of France. Its red, white, and blue stripes are instantly recognisable. While you won’t see the flag flying outside many private homes, it is unquestionably a symbol of French pride.

The story behind the French flag is fascinating and speaks to the history of modern France.

The tricolour started life on another important French symbol, the national cockade. Also known as the national ornament, the cockade is a tricolour rosette first worn by the revolutionaries of 1789.  

The cockade was chosen as a unifying emblem to rally restless Parisians. Red and blue are the ancient colours of Paris. The white was shortly added to represent the monarchy, in an ultimately doomed attempt to engage the Bourbon monarch in the historic changes afoot.

The three colours were actually the second choice of the uprising. The crowds in Paris initially chose a green design that was seen to represent hope. When it was pointed out that green was the heraldic colour of the king’s brother, the Count of Artois, the decision was promptly reversed.

Fatefully, the Count would be the last Bourbon ruler of France as King Charles X, when installed on the throne 35 years later during the ill-starred Bourbon Restoration.

Revolutionary sympathisers in Italy created their own tricolour using the original green, adorned with red and white colours. Illustrating the popular appeal of tricolour designs, it was the precursor to the modern Italian flag.

In a neat bit of retrofitting, the French Tricolore was determined to represent the three essential estates of the French state: the clergy (blue), nobility (white), and the third estate, or proletariat (red).

With the French Revolution complete, the flag was formally adopted in 1794 as the national flag, replacing the royal flag that had been one of the prominent French symbols for centuries. The royal flag would briefly reappear during the doomed Bourbon Restoration (1814/15 – 1830). Le Drapeau Tricolore has remained the French flag ever since.

In 1958, the French constitution was updated to clarify that the French flag must consist of the three colours we all recognise. Various iterations have appeared in subsequent years, primarily as presidential standards and for military branches.

And if you’ve ever taken a second glance at the French flag and thought the colours looked off, there are two official versions with different shades. President Emmanuel Macron recently switched to the darker shade, while his predecessors preferred the lighter shaded version.  

La Marseillaise – The French national anthem

Every nation needs a stirring anthem to go with its flag. France is lucky enough to have one of the most rousing national anthems.

Yet while the melody may be optimistic, the lyrics are decidedly less innocent. Not surprising for a song originally titled ‘Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin’ (War Song of the Army of the Rhine).

The anthem was composed after the first coalition of European nations attacked revolutionary France; their leaders were alarmed they were next in line for dethronement.    

The song became one of the most potent French symbols when volunteers from Marseille, known as fédérés, marched to Paris to support the revolutionary government. It was named La Marseillaise in their honour.

Putting aside the bombastic words — which were born of a dangerous moment in French history — the musical score is uplifting.

Possibly influenced by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25, the score and lyrics were composed by a freemason and army captain living in Strasbourg, Rouget de Lisle, in 1792. Baron Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich, the mayor of Strasbourg, commissioned the patriotic song.

The Baron did not live to see it become the First Republic’s national anthem in 1795, even though this most powerful of French symbols was first performed in his own living room. Condemned as insufficiently loyal by the tyrannical Maximilien Robespierre, he found himself on the guillotine in 1793. A violent end for the man who commissioned a violent song.

He was later pardoned and hailed a hero of the revolution, although perhaps a little too late for the Baron’s liking. The adage that revolutions always eat their own children once again proves accurate.

Occasional attempts to revise the lyrics, which talk of massacring impure Germans, have failed. And today, the formidable song is sung with a gusto that belies its violent history.

You can hear one of the most feted renditions of La Marseillaise here, performed by the iconic French singer Mireille Mathieu.

If you want to discover more famous French singers, check out our post ‘12 Famous French Singers, past and present’.

French Symbols of state

Several French symbols are well-known in France but don’t hold the same international profile as the national flag and anthem. Like the following three entries, which are all official representations of the Republic of France. 

Marianne

Yet another of the significant French symbols to emerge from the French Revolution, Marianne is considered the allegorical embodiment of France and its values.

Marianne represents liberty. Statues, busts, and representations of her can be found in public buildings across France.

Marianne was first depicted as a goddess holding aloft a pike topped with a Phrygian cap. A Phrygian cap, aka liberty cap, is considered an unofficial French symbol. 

The Phrygian cap is a relic of ancient civilisations that became associated with liberty when given to slaves in ancient Rome who won their freedom.

The cap was later adopted as a symbol of rebellion against the nobility in the rebellious Brittany region of France. Coloured red, the bonnet rouge remained a symbol of revolutionary zeal right through to the Revolution of 1789.

When the artist Jean-Michel Moreau painted a goddess holding aloft a liberty cap in 1775, he had no idea it would later be appropriated as an icon of the Revolution.  

Using a female figure further underlined a rupture with the monarchical past (there has never been a female ruler in France).

In post-revolutionary France, French symbols were being created in abundance, driven by a desire to redefine the icons of old France. Marianne first appeared on the state zeal in 1792 and has been displayed in various forms ever since.

Modern incarnations of Marianne, usually just an image of her head, have appeared on coins, stamps, paintings, and as busts in state buildings. Her image also appears on official documents and letters issued by the state, making her appearance an everyday occurrence.

There is no single image of Marianne, and artistic interpretations vary. She has even been modelled on French celebrities, like Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.

Her likeness can be seen in the Statue of Liberty. And although Marianne represents the seemingly unequivocal virtues of freedom and liberty, she has attracted controversy from the start. The leading lights of the French Revolution were divided on her relevance. Napoleon Bonaparte was no fan. And more recently, she’s been at the centre of political mudslinging in France. 

Clearly associated with the rejection of conservatism coupled with Marianne’s links with feminism has seen right-wing politicians promote an actual female figure from French history, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc). The Maid of Orleans embodies the nationalist spirit, having helped vanquish the English on behalf of the king. Yet Marianne remains one of the official French symbols, present in every town hall in France.

If you’re wondering why she is called Marianne? Sorry, nobody seems to know the answer. It was probably just a popular name in the 1700s, which is rather anticlimactic for one of the most prominent French symbols.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

The French motto to top all mottos, the nakedly virtuous slogan is ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, which represents the ideals of a reborn nation.

You may have observed an unsurprising pattern — all the best-known French symbols originated with the French Revolution.

There are clear historical reasons for this. The 1789 Revolution was so comprehensive that any French symbols from before were deliberately, sometimes unconsciously, eradicated.

Before the Revolution, no national motto existed to unify the nation. There were royal coats of arms with meaningless Latin mottos, but ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ was the first true motto for all of France. A rallying cry of the people shaped by the era-defining ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen’.

An architect of the Revolution, Camille Desmoulins, is credited with using the slogan first. He was also behind the tricolour cockade that popularly symbolised the Revolution.

Conveniently forgotten, the slogan of the day was actually, “Unity, indivisibility of the Republic: liberty, equality or death”. As with other violent ideas of the French Revolution, the motto was condensed when France started making peace with itself.

The motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité fell in and out of favour in subsequent years, reflecting the politics of whatever Republic or Empire France was experimenting with. It was not until the Third Republic (1870-1940) that the motto became one of the official French symbols.

By 1946, it appeared in the new French Constitution (and its replacement in 1958) and has remained one of the leading French symbols ever since.

Bastille Day

Bastille Day, officially ‘le 14 Juillet (14th July), is France’s national celebration. It is formally titled the ‘Fête Nationale Française’, commemorating the fabled revolutionary flashpoint, the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789.  

The insurrection at the Bastille was an attack on one of the symbols of royal power. Although there were only 7 prisoners at the time, it marked a critical turning point in French history. Any notion that the citizens of France, the Third Estate, could compromise with King Louis XVI died at that moment.  

Confusingly, the national holiday was created the following year as a day of peace and reconciliation. The king and other nobles blithely joined the celebrations. It was not apparent at the time, but the fuse had already been lit on a more brutal stage of the Revolution.

Today, le 14 Juillet is celebrated with an arresting military parade on the Champs-Élysées. For today’s proletariat, it is more valued as a paid holiday.

Non-Revolutionary symbols of France

It may come as a surprise, but some official French symbols are not rooted in the French Revolution. Alas, the stories behind the two upcoming French symbols are far more prosaic.

National and diplomatic emblems of France

The diplomatic emblem of France is the most internationally travelled of all French symbols. It appears on all French passports and also on diplomatic buildings.

The emblem was adopted in 1913 to fill a need for something to put on diplomatic missions. Symbolism was very much in vogue in the run-up to World War I.

The image consists of a bundle of fasces wrapped around an axe. The fasces is an Italian symbol, lamentably adopted by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in later years. As you may have guessed, it is where the term fascism comes from.

More agreeably, the emblem also includes an olive branch (for peace) and an oak branch representing wisdom. The initials RF, République Française, are stencilled across the emblem.

The national emblem of France has a similar appearance but includes the national motto ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité‘. One of the lesser French symbols, the emblem appears when a national coat of arms is called for, such as at the United Nations.

Le coq Gaulois, aka Gallic Rooster

The French symbols we’ve covered so far have a fascinating and, often, bloodsoaked origin story. Unlike our final entry, the Gallic rooster is one of the more endearing French symbols.

It is a beloved French mascot and icon of French sport, appearing on the national football and rugby team jerseys.

The history of the le coq Gaulois — better known as Chantecler (from the medieval tale ‘Reynard the Fox‘) — probably dates back to the first king of France, Clovis I. It has also been tenuously linked with the early Gauls, although the idea may have been motivated by another attempt to erase royal history after 1789.

Gallus means rooster and Gaul in Latin, and apocryphal accounts claim France’s medieval enemies enjoyed this ironic wordplay, using it to mock French soldiers.

Rolling with the joke, the Gallic rooster emerged as a symbol of the Catholic church in France. It was later appropriated by revolutionaries, depicted wearing the Phrygian bonnet.

The rooster became associated with fraternity, the third element of the tripartite slogan of France.

Napoleon Bonaparte was less enamoured: he wanted French symbols of power and favoured an eagle to represent imperial France. 

Yet the Gallic rooster was irrepressible and remained one of the most enduring French symbols. He resurfaced during France’s less-talked-about 1830 revolution Trois Glorieuses (or three glorious days), which deposed Charles X. The image was adopted as a contemporary symbol of the National Guard, appearing on their uniform buttons.

Dipping in and out of popularity, the rooster made a definitive comeback during the Third Republic of 1870.

A new kind of nationalism followed the defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the rooster was revived as a nationalist symbol. He even made an appearance on the 20 Franc coin in 1899.

The rooster’s status as one of the leading French symbols was cemented following the tragedy of World War I. The symbol became shorthand for France, represented the nation in satirical cartoons, and appeared on many war memorials across France.

Today, the Gallic rooster is still associated with national pride, albeit in the more benign sporting arena. But despite an enduring appeal, Le coq Gaulois is not endorsed by the government as one of the official French symbols.

Alternative symbols of France

Like any country, France also has a fair share of popular cultural symbols that are too myriad to list here. A few most would agree on: the Eiffel Tower, French cuisine, the French language, and perhaps Les Bleus (the nickname for the admired national football and rugby teams).

Nonetheless, the seven French symbols on this list are not open to debate. They are iconic representations of the Fifth Republic. And most of them have been de facto French symbols since at least the birth of the First Republic.

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