Three Colors

Why do the French and American flags share the same colors? Is it a coincidence? No one knows who designed these two flags, but there are a few clues.
American postcard from 1918. © Delcampe.net

For the thirteen original colonies marked by British culture, and whose officers, most notably George Washington, had served in the occupying army, blue, white and red were already familiar shades used to rally the troops. The American flag can thus be understood as a modified version of the British flag. As Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, wrote a few years later: “These Americans are just Englishmen; we were wrong to help them!” Talleyrand bitterly regretted that the United States had resumed commercial relations with the English at a time when the French had established a continental blockade.

And where does the French flag come from? According to the national legend that assumed the power of an official truth with Michelet’s History of France, published in the mid-19th century, the color white, an ancient emblem of royalty, was framed by blue and red, the ensign of the city of Paris. It is thought that this tricolor flag was first brandished by the French armies in the battle of Valmy, in September 1792, an offensive that saved the French Revolution from the Prussian army. The legend goes that, during this same battle, the French soldiers cried out “Vive la Nation” (“Long Live the Nation”) instead of “Vive le Roi” (“Long Live the King”), replacing one source of legitimacy with another. This lovely story is puzzling, because Louis XVI was in prison and it is hard to see how the white would have been retained on the flag as a symbol of monarchy. It seems more probable that the French flag was inspired by the American one, since the United States was the very first republic, and one that many French revolutionaries took as a model. It should be recalled that, in 1792, Thomas Paine, an instigator of American independence, was a deputy from Pas-de-Calais at the French National Convention.

This influence of the American Republic was seen again in the Parisian revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In 1830, on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, the poet Lamartine delivered a vibrant homage to the tricolor flag against the return of the white flag; by his side was the Marquis de La Fayette, the “hero of both worlds”. The complicity between the two nations was thus re-affirmed. Once again, in 1848, at the founding of the Second Republic (the First in 1792, lasted only three chaotic years), deputy and soon-to-be minister Alexis de Tocqueville played a critical role in the drafting of the French Constitution, directly inspired by that of the United States with two legislative chambers and an elected President with limited powers. But this President was Louis Napoleon, who trampled the Constitution and, like his uncle, proclaimed himself Emperor. Tocqueville renounced public life and devoted himself to writing – fortunately for us.

The United States of Europe

The American Constitution has continually haunted some of France’s finest minds: in the 1860s, the jurist Etienne de Laboulaye, who devised the plan for the Statue of Liberty, campaigned for France’s adoption of the United States Constitution. The previous head of government André Tardieu revived this idea in the 1930s, which made him very unpopular. In 1959, General de Gaulle had the French ratify a Constitution that suited him, more monarchical than American; but his successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, an admirer of Jefferson, reinforced the judicial authority of our meager Constitutional Council in order to bring it closer to the American Supreme Court. In 2003 this same Giscard d’Estaing presided over a European “Convention,” a direct reference to that of Philadelphia and the American Founding Fathers, in the hope – rejected by the voters – of founding the United States of Europe. This formula, “United States of Europe,” was first penned by Victor Hugo in 1849.

Today you mustn’t tell the French that their flag and their Constitution owe a little something to the United States – they would be surprised and, in some cases, annoyed. And what of a United States of Europe? With “Brexit”, this seems further away than ever, but don’t forget: the United States of America only really became united in the 20th century, after the Civil War and the Reconstruction. European unification only began to take shape in 1957, which, in comparison with American history, leaves some room for hope.