France’s complicated relationship to the flag
After having talked about Denmark in all the previous posts, I would like to talk a bit about France. Living in Denmark where the flag is everywhere, has led me to wonder why the French flag was so absent in France. Have you ever wondered why there are no flagpoles outside private houses in France, while there are plenty in Denmark or the USA? Why the only time you will see a Frenchman all “bleu blanc rouge” is in a stadium or fan zone? Then read on.
What I am talking about here is a bit of a touchy topic in France. Of course we all believe that our national flag is beautiful, and we are happy to wave it for any sport event, to support the national team. However, it has long been reserved for official buildings or ceremonies, while waving the flag for no apparent reason is often interpreted as nationalistic and therefore excluding. We would not even raise the flag on the national day, 14th of July (also called “Bastille day” in every other country but France).
To find the reason why, we have to go back to World-war two, when the French government of Vichy collaborated with the nazis. This is still a painful episode in French history, one that we would all like to forget by emphasizing the importance of the resistance led by Charles De Gaulle. However, it is undeniable that it brought shame on the flag, as it was used by the pro-nazi government, while the resistance used a different flag. Moreover since then, the nationalistic political party has used the French flag extensively, in their gatherings and demonstrations, much more so than any other party. And slowly, the flag became associated with nationalism or even fascism, a way to exclude more than unite.
It is sadly ironic that a flag which originated from the French revolution, as a symbol of freedom and solidarity against tyranny, later became associated to the opposite of that. Conscient of that bad image, Segolène Royal tried to rebrand it during her presidential campaign, but she was mocked for it and was eventually not elected president. Her now ex-husband President Francois Hollande tried again in the aftermath of terrorists attacks that stroke France in 2015. Hollande asked French people to display a flag during commemorations for the victims. The aim was to associate the flag with peace and unity, to bring the French together. He succeeded and many French started buying their own flag for the first time. This felt like a sort of national therapy, where we French healed our traumas of the nazi occupation, and came together as one. By the way, if you haven’t seen the beautiful video of the father conforting his little boy worried about terrorism after the Bataclan attacks, watch it here.
On another front, the recent victories of the French sports teams on an international level (e.g. in handball, football…) have revived the use of the flag. During the European cup of football, that took place in France in 2016, it was common to see French flags hanging outside windows for the entire turnament, and people entirely dressed up in the 3 colours, walking down the street on game days. Winning the World cup of Football for the second time last summer (2018) also boosted the sale of French flags.
All in all, the day you will see a French flag on a birthday cake (like the Danes do) is still far away, but the French people are on their way to reclaiming their flag.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this, whether you’re French or not. What’s your relationship to your national flag?