During the Ancien Régime, the oriflamme, the flag of Saint-Denis, was used -- red, with 2, 3 or 5 spikes. Originally, it was the personal flag of Charlemagne, given to him by the Pope in the 9th century. Over the time, it became the royal banner under the Carolingians and the Capetians. It was stored in Saint-Denis abbey, where it was taken when war broke out.
In the French military, every regiment had its own flag. An accident where French regiments attacked each other at the Battle of Fleurus in 1690 led to the habit of attaching a white scarf to the flags of the regiments -- white being the colour of the kings of France.
The origins of the tricolore are said to be a rosette, created in July 1789 during the French Revolution, which (according to legend among vexillologists) used a combination of the colours of the coat of arms of Paris (red and blue), symbolically separated by the royal colour (white), with the combination often being credited to the Marquis de Lafayette. There are many theories and suppositions about the choice of colours and indeed Lafayette's involvement in the process.
One theory says that Lafayette was inspired by the colours used by the American revolutionaries; another that it symbolized the control of the people over the monarchy (Paris' colours - blue and red - bording monarchy's colour - white) at a time when parliamentary monarchy was still seen as a possibility in France; another that the French design and scheme originated with the Dutch flag - the first tricolour.
Flag of Free France during WWII
The three colours in vertical stripes were first used as a canton on Naval flags in 1790, and extended to the whole field in 1794. The French National Convention adopted the modern blue-white-red flag as the national flag on February 15, 1794 (27 pluviôse an. II in the revolutionary calendar). The relevant part of the decree says, in translation:
The national flag shall be formed of the three national colours, set in three equal bands, vertically arranged so that the blue is nearest to the staff, the white in the middle, and the red flying.
It came into use on May 20, 1794, in order to avoid confusion in naval warfare. Its adoption was not universally welcomed; the navy threatened to mutiny, since they were at the time continuing to fight under the white flag of the monarchy. Even when the three colours had been used - for example by the army in 1791 and by the National Guard after 1789 - they were often used creatively.
For example, at the Battle of Arcole Napoleon brandished a white standard, with a golden fasces lictoriae in the centre (a symbol of the former Roman Republic), and four red and blue lozenges at the corners. The vertical striped flag was adopted by the army in 1812, replacing the previous flags which were often a white cross on red and blue.
After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the tricolore was replaced by the royal white standard with fleur-de-lis which had been in use before the Revolution. However, the revolution of 1830 saw Louis-Philippe, the Citizen-King, ascend to the throne who again designated the tricolore as the national flag, which it has remained ever since. The flag of Free France featured a red Cross of Lorraine on a Tricolore Enlarge The flag of Free France featured a red Cross of Lorraine on a Tricolore
During the Revolution of 1848, the red flag was raised by radicals supporting a socialist alternative government to the new French Second Republic while moderates rallied to the tricolore.
In World War II, Vichy France continued to use the traditional French standard. To distinguish themselves, Free French Forces under Charles De Gaulle bore a Tricolore with a red Cross of Lorraine superimposed in the centre.
For the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, Adidas designed the official match ball with a triode blue, white and red design and called it the "Tricolore" inspired by the French Flag colours.
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