The first French banner known is the one of king Louis VII leaving for the crusade of 1147 : just like the coronation clothes it was blue scattered with gold lily flowers, in order to signify to the world that the chosen ones (the heavenly Jerusalem) helped him. Charles V (1364-1380) reduced the fleurs-de-lis to three in honour of the Holy Trinity. This banner of France was still present at Louis XVIII funeral (1824).
From the beginning of the XIVth century, white was the color of the French, especially on the cross of their clothes opposed to the red cross of Englishmen (circa 1350). The King of Heaven’s standard wanted by Joan of Arc had a white field (1429) and a white cross appeared in the sky when the count of Dunois's troops entered Bayonne in 1451. The fleur-de-lis pennant which followed the king in operation or in fight was replaced by the white cornet from 1495 and this sign of authority is pointed out under Louis XIII (1620). The white cross continued on the flags of the French infantry from the XVI th century and on the ensigns of the mercantile marine.
The abolition of the Admiralty of France (1627) reinforced a recent custom indicating the direct authority of the King on the Navy by the white ensign. In 1643, the royal banner to the sea was white with gold fleurs-de-lis with the arms of France supported by two cherubs in the center. The Ordinance of October 9th, 1661 formalized the plain white ensign for warships. A little later, in 1689, a new order defined for the Royal Navy for trade, a blue ensign bearing a white cross charged with the coat of arms of France (sometimes omitted). The immaculate flag of the King and of the State was authorized for the East India Company from 1739 and finally granted to the merchant marine which hoisted blue and white ensigns of different types. An ordinance of Louis XV (March 25, 1765) decided this uniformity. For the whole world France was white, and this navy ensign was only seen at the entrance of French ports, and before the houses of the consuls abroad (Levant, China, etc…)
On July 13th, 1789, the Parisian insurgents including the guard of the city wore the cockade with blue and red ribbons, colours of Paris, and when it became known that the King was to visit the capital a cockade with an extra white ribbon was manufactured. This new cockade in the ‘colours of freedom’ was given by Mayor Bailly to Louis XVI on 17th. It was formalized by Lafayette for the National Guard on 31st and the King ratified on August 2nd. It was officially adopted without defined order on October 4th, 1789. At the Fête de la Fédération on July 14th, 1790, white, red, blue flames were seen and then the more harmonious blue, white, red sequence was used.
To stop the discontent of the sailors, a law of October 31st, 1790 created a white stern flag adorned with a canton in the composition of the naval jack: red, white, blue vertical stripes all edging of white and with a thin border divided vertically into two parts, blue towards the halyard, and red.
The monarchy was abolished on 21st September, 1792 and the Republic was proclaimed the next day. Disgruntled by a too white flag, sailors obtained an ensign with blue (to the halyard) white and red bands from the National Convention on 27th pluviôse year 2 (February 15, 1794). This was the birth certificate of the current national ensign, revolutionary by its vertical stripes. It will be displayed on all ships on the 1st day of prairial (May 20th, 1794). It went ashore to replace the tricolour flames on public buildings, and it was seen on the building of the Tuileries during the installation of the First Consul on 19th February, 1801.
On land, regiments were supplied with flags and standards often very different from the tricolor ensign, with all possible geometric forms, and in particular in 1804 a white square surrounded by blue and red opposed triangles at the corners. However, in 1812, the three vertical stripes became also official for the military square flags.
The King being back in 1814, the white cockade spread and an order of the provisional Government (April 13th) decided that the white ensign and the white cockade would be displayed on the war and merchant vessels. Nothing else was decided. So the white ensign became the white flag ashore until the return of Napoleon Ist in 1815 (these were the hundred days when the tricolor flag was flown from the imperial decree of March 9th), but during the return of Louis XVIII to Paris the white flag became legal again (July 7th).
After the July Revolution (the Three Glorious years), Louis-Philippe duke of Orléans, lieutenant general of the Kingdom, restored the tricolor flag by the ordinance of 1st August 1830 and became Louis-Philippe Ist King of the French. During his reign the Navy obtained that bands have over 100 unequal widths 30 for blue, 33 for white and 37 for red for practical reasons of visibility (1838).
On 24th February, 1848 an insurrection overthrew Louis Philippe and a provisional government settled by proclaiming the Second Republic. Some Parisian revolutionaries attempted to get the red flag while others wanted a tricolour blue, red and white, order of the colours of the fête of the Fédération and of the cockades of the Empire. The poet Lamartine who became Minister of Foreign Affairs opposed the red and after his famous speech on 25th at the Town Hall which saved the tricolor, a compromise came on February 26th, 1848. It was decided that we kept the flag and national flag decided by the National Convention (which had said nothing about the flag on land) ‘whose colors will be restored in the order which had been adopted by the French Republic’ but the Government members will wear the red rosette which will also be placed at the flagstaff.
Unfortunately, an order dated February 28th, signed by the delegate of the Republic to the Police Department, citizen Marc Caussidière, responsible for the execution of the decision of the 26th, commanded that a blue-red-white flag be raised without delay on monuments and public buildings. He believed he had done the right thing by choosing among the consulted documents the draft of 1794 of the (unproven) painter David which had never been realized. In front of the violence of the protests, the decree of March 5th, 1848 and the circular of March 7th thankfully restored the situation. The Navy Regulation of May 17, 1853 confirmed the widths of the three bands of the marine ensign at 0.30, 0.33 and 0.37 of the total length.
The Second Empire and the Republics have kept the tricolor ‘national emblem’ confirmed with its vertical stripes of equal dimensions (1946 constitution, art. 2) then without mention of verticality and dimensions (1958 constitution, art. 2). However, the Navy retains its unequal bands. We also know the attempt of the short-lived Commune de Paris (28 March to 28 May) in order to impose the red flag in 1871.
The shade of colors has never been specified in any text. However, President Giscard d'Estaing changed the shade of blue in June 1976, by lightening it in order to make it more ‘readable’ or more ‘telegenic’ (Pantone 286 C approximately) while the red became more vivid (Pantone 185 C approximately).
BIBLIOGRAPHY: by H. Pinoteau:
La symbolique royale française Vth-XVIIIth centuries, P.S.R. éditions, 86200 La Roche-Rigault, 2003 ;
Le Chaos français et ses signes. Étude de la symbolique de l’État français depuis la Révolution de 1789, ibid, 1998.