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Why Macron snubbed the EU When did he turn into a 'flagshagger'?

Il aime beaucoup le drapeau. Credit: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty


November 17, 2021   5 mins

There are all sorts of things a French politician might want to do in secret: conduct an affair. Embezzle state funds. Fight a small war in Africa. 

But in the case of Emmanuel Macron, it’s something rather different. He’s been changing the colour of the French flag without telling anyone about it. Or perhaps we just didn’t notice. Either way, it’s definitely happening. One by one, government buildings are taking down their flags and replacing them with a modified Tricolore. The red is slightly deeper and the blue distinctly darker. 

Throughout modern history, autocratic leaders have taken it upon themselves to change the national flag. We don’t have to go back to the Thirties and you-know-who for an example. For instance, in 1995, Alexander Lukashenko changed the white-red-white flag of Belarus to a design based on the Communist-era flag of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The change was more than cosmetic. Lukashenko has ruled his country in the Soviet style ever since. 

Emmanuel Macron is also returning to a — literally — darker past. His preferred version of the French flag goes all the way back to the 18th century and the birth of the French Republic. It was Jacques-Louis David — pre-eminent artist of the Revolution — who created the definitive Tricolore in 1794. 

So what is Macron up to? Why would a busy world leader spend his time fussing over his country’s national symbols? Could it be that Monsieur Europe is in fact a “flagshagger”?

British users of Twitter will be familiar with this indelicate epithet. It’s an insult directed by die-hard Remainers against their Brexiteer opponents. The not-so-subtle implication is that anyone who makes a point of flying our national flag must love it rather too much. 

It’s all part of a wider — and oddly British — tendency. Almost uniquely in the world, a significant slice of progressive opinion in this country regards the open display of national symbols as divisive. Just look at the abuse that Keir Starmer got from his own side when he appeared alongside a strategically-placed Union Jack. 

Where on Earth did we get the idea that we should be embarrassed by our own flag? Perhaps from the Germans. A key moment came in 2013, when Angela Merkel took a German flag (the black, red and gold one) from a colleague at a campaign rally. But rather than wave it, she rushed to get rid of it — a look of disgust on her face. No flagshagging for her. 

The clip still does the rounds on social media — usually to make the point that the leaders of the European Union, unlike their brutish British counterparts, have left nationalism in the past where it belongs. However, that’s not the whole story. Four years later — and faced with an electoral challenge from the hard Right — Merkel too was wrapping herself in the flag. Today, finding himself in a similar situation, Macron is doing the same.

Unofficially, the three colours of the French flag correspond to the three words of the national motto: libertĂ©, egalitĂ©, fraternitĂ©. In this age of lockdowns, some might interpret the darkening of the blue as the dimming of liberty. Certainly, it accords with a shift in the national mood. It was only in April that a thousand French servicemen and women — including 20 retired generals — signed a letter attacking the government and warning of civil war. Ominously, the letter was published on the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Algiers Putsch — a failed military coup.

Furthermore — and this bears repetition until it ceases to be true — Macron’s main challengers for the Presidency are Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, both of whom are candidates of the far Right. Is it a mere coincidence that the colours used in Macron’s version of the Tricolore match those used in the logo of Le Pen’s political party? It seems more likely that Macron is moving to reclaim the mantle of French nationalism. 

It’s worth remembering where the outgoing version of the French flag came from. The key decision was made in 1976 by ValĂ©ry Giscard d’Estaing. For his time, Giscard was a modernising president. His reforms included symbolic changes. For instance, he slowed down the rhythm of the Marseillaise — the national anthem — to make it less aggressive. As for the national flag, he brightened it up. In particular, the blue was changed to match the shade used in the European flag. 

The two flags fly side-by-side just about everywhere in France. Thanks to Giscard’s innovation, they harmonise seamlessly. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins — a visual representation of how the French state has traditionally viewed the European Union. 

However, France is coming to realise that the EU is less of an extension of French sovereignty and more of a threat to it. Eurosceptic postures are no longer confined to the far Right, but have been adopted by mainstream politicians like Michel Barnier. This puts Macron in a delicate position. With Angela Merkel about to step down as German Chancellor, he must fancy himself as Europe’s biggest cheese. However, he’s still got an election to win at home against Rightist opposition — and thus he needs to assert French sovereignty, but without upsetting Brussels.

Symbolically, this is exactly what his changes to the flag achieve. By replacing the Reflex Blue in Giscard’s colour scheme with the older, darker blue, the Tricolore no longer merges into the EU flag. It may be a distinction that makes no practical difference, but it sends a signal. 

Am I reading too much into this? Can we really imagine that a liberal rationalist and pro-European like Emmanuel Macron actually cares about a mere national symbol? Absolutely, we can. 

Back in 2018, he made an official visit to the Mont Valerien fort near Paris — a site sacred to the memory of members of the French resistance. Greeting the waiting crowd, the President was affronted when a cheeky teenager asked him “how’s it going, Manu?” Instead of ignoring the young man, Macron told him off: “You’re here, at an official ceremony and you should behave. You can play the fool but today it’s the Marseillaise, the Chant des Partisans, so you call me ‘Mister President’ or ‘sir’.”

Was this just amour-propre — self-love — on the part of a prickly politician? Not on this occasion. In referring the national anthem and to a patriotic song of the Resistance, Macron wasn’t thinking of his own ego but the dignity of his office and its symbolic importance to the nation. 

I’d be amazed if he accorded any less respect to his country’s flag. He hasn’t changed its colours because out of some trivial preference for one shade of blue over another. He’ll have thought long and hard about the deeper meanings.

Flags as we know them today are descended from the battlefield heraldry of the Middle Ages. But whereas a coat of arms is an exclusive possession — a privilege granted to the high and mighty — a flag belongs to an entire people. Contrary to the progressive critique, national flags are symbols of inclusion, of democracy in its fullest sense. While they mark borders in space, they signify continuity through time — an inheritance to be handed down from generation to generation. 

Giscard was therefore wrong to break with tradition and Macron is right to restore the Tricolore to its former glory. Let’s see who salutes.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Contrary to the progressive critique, national flags are symbols of inclusion, of democracy in its fullest sense. While they mark borders in space, they signify continuity through time — an inheritance to be handed down from generation to generation.
The first time in a long time I’ve heard anyone express this sentiment. Well done.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Meanwhile, in other places, the inheritance does get changed. Here in Australia, I started off with God Save the Queen as our national anthem. That was replaced with something called Advance Australia Fair. Then this year even the words of that were fiddled with; it is no longer appropriate to sing that ‘we are young and free’ (offensive to Aboriginals) so that was changed to ‘we are one and free’. Such is life …. you have to keep up with those traditions.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Might even be a thought crime.
Let’s see if Macron is still a flag-shagger and enthusiastic about borders after the votes are counted next year.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Do you think this might be political opportunism by Macron? Sacre bleu!!

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Sacre Bleu Fonce
Sacre Bleu Noir ?

Bogman Star
Bogman Star
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s one thing having flags on state buildings etc. But anyone who flies a flag in their back yard is, to my mind, some sort of crank. That sort of overdone personal flag waving usually denotes insecurity about identity, or a cover up of personality defects (as Dr. Johnson noted, “last refuge of a scoundrel” etc).
Growing up in NI, the British Army used to drive around at night, painting Union Flags on roads in Irish areas of Northern Ireland, just to show the dastardly locals who was boss. We used to do handbrake turns on them. We’d also paint a traffic cone in the colours of the Irish tricolour and nail it atop a telephone pole. Sure enough, within hours, 2 Saracens full of soldiers would come up to remove it. It was fun to wind them up – all it took was a traffic cone with the wrong colour of paint on it, and they’d be all agitated for hours about it. Whereas I personally have never even owned any flag of any description. Being unable to eat them, and never having felt a sense of belonging to any state, I fail to see the point in them.
And if you were from my community, displays of the UK national flag often could be a prelude to being beaten up. FYI, here is my personal account of the day when, as a student on a train, I met a group of fellows who love their flags:
https://passedoffpeacefully.blogspot.com/

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Its easy to tear down, its hard to build up. Dont be too happy about that.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Enjoyed the blog and history lesson, thanks

Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

“anyone who flies a flag in their back yard is, to my mind, some sort of crank.” Then Norway, for instance, is jam-packed with cranks.

Sally Owen
Sally Owen
2 years ago
Reply to  Oliver Wright

Sweden also

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Oliver Wright

and Scotland and Northumberland

Roger Laville
Roger Laville
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

I’m not convinced that’s true, Bogman. The Unions paint curbstones red, white and blue – and equally the Nationalists paint theirs orange, white and green – but I never heard of the army painting them. As much as anything else, it would have been a hugely unnecessary security risk.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

You do talk nonsense. I recall nationalists who loved slagging off Unionists and beating up people with English accents too. You must be so proud.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Indeed. Peter Franklin is clearly (among other things ) a vexillologist -a student of flags!

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
2 years ago

When will the oddly-named mainstream media and the social media drop the term “far-right” to describe the views held by a near if not clear majority? Just asking, I know it’s a knee-jerk twitch brought on by the stifling air inside the bubble.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

“However, he’s still got an election to win at home against Rightist opposition — and thus he needs to assert French sovereignty, but without upsetting Brussels.”
Here’s hoping he gets it totally wrong and falls down the chasm between the two competing sides, never to be seen again.
My take on the flag change: it is about making the Tricolore match the dark blue suits Macron likes to wear so much. Maybe a d’Estaing kind of move, but moving away from the “France-is-Europe-and-Europe-is-France” idea, towards “France-is-me-and-I-am-France”. Maybe he’s trying to make himself into a male Marianne of sorts?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Or a 21st century Louis xiv, seeing as it was he who coined the dictum “L’etat, c’est moi”. His high-handedness with the teenager is of a piece with Ludovician gloire

Last edited 2 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

By what standard was it ‘high handed’? OMG, the scandal and oppression in telling a teenager where to get off. But well said, everyday a school day. Now I know who wrote the dreadful Battlefield games.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

I agree he was correct to pull up his kid but i think it lacked a certain intellectual depth, He didnt have the tools in the locker but to give such a pompous response. I am surprised he didnt add ,” take him to the Bastille!”. He is what we call in Wales,
” a cocky little bast–d”

Last edited 2 years ago by hugh bennett
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

This kind of thing simply shows that EU unity was always a lie. The French are still suffering from Brexit Derangement Syndrome and I think that’s partly because they are jealous. We had the balls to do what they are too scared to do. However I do have a lot of faith in the French people. They are not as supinely pro EU as we are led to believe. They are still fiercely patriotic and I have always loved them for that.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

“They are not as supinely pro EU as we are led to believe.”
The novels of Michel Houellebecq corroborate this contention of yours.

Bogman Star
Bogman Star
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

The world’s dreariest novelist.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Why oh Why are you so aggressive ? If you are going to down someone for their appreciation of something, in such a dismissive way, you should take the time to explain why you came to your “opinion”…

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

The French love the EU as long as they can get their way- fishing, CAP, Germans kept under control etc.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

“Flagshagger”? I hoped UnHerd might try to raise the standard, not lower it further.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

They’re only quoting what some Remainers call Leavers.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

you missed the point.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

“Flagshagger”? I hoped UnHerd might try to raise the standard,”

If they do come out with some kind of patriotic Viagra I hope they put it in the water as I 100% revere the flag.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Was that an intentional pun?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

I hope so. My upvote was for the pun more than the sentiment.
You can say almost anything if the pun is good enough.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

“Almost uniquely in the world, a significant slice of progressive opinion in this country regards the open display of national symbols as divisive.” Correct, ‘almost uniquely’, because in Australia the arguing over symbols never ends. I noticed an article in this morning’s paper which will start the annual bitter debate about whether Australia Day should be moved from January 28.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

Very true. I was disturbed by the sight of red/yellow/black flags all over Australia. Not just aesthetically – let’s be honest, they are hideous – but because it is disturbing that the state participates in its own delegitimisation in this way. Divisiveness in the name of inclusivity, frankly.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Red yellow black????

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

Aboriginal flag.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Aaah. Thanks. Didn’t know there was one. Having a flag doesn’t sound like a very aboriginal thing to do.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

This is a big stretch, I know, but there were many events to mark the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death this year. It was very obvious that all the artistic representations of the time (and the reproduction memorabilia on sale) used a darker colour. To me, it made the colour (which I have seen everywhere for all my life) look wrong. Did this event bring the subject into contemporary French consciousness? I wonder…

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Despite (or including) the odd Algerian person, France is very, very…. er …. French. The country is proud of its language and, for some reason, proud of its history. The flag is a symbol of this.

A couple of generations of Germans have been told from birth that nationalism is bad. Merkel is part of that history and her reaction not so surprising.

Other countries are less clear. States in the USA have two flags if you include the Stars and Stripes and the state flag; some have three when you add the Confederate flag. The UK has a few flags. Belarus has a chequered recent history and the flag could change every 5 years.

My point is that flags mean different things to different people. Where I live many people have flags in their gardens but not the Union Jack. You can’t rely on a flag to inspire sympathy for one nationalistic cause without bringing in another competing cause. Flags just don’t do it.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

So what will do it for you? A line of cocaine? A drip of Pfizer? A less farting cow?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Croitoru

Don’t really understand the question. So which is the flag to follow in your opinion?
For me, a political system which really works. Maybe France has it. We don’t. Ours is at least a hundred years out of date.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The French fierceness over laicite is something I truly admire. Macron won brownie points from me for his rather unique and strong stance against Islamism recently. He was not given the support he should have been.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

On the A1 Scotland has a massive billboard Saltire and three flags..all Nicola Sturgeon approved Saltires. England has the Union Flag, the Cross of St George and the Northumberland flag.

Unity yet diversity I suppose contrasting with the monolithic SNP vision of the world

John Verrill
John Verrill
2 years ago

In the summer a number of Frenchmen were charged with theft for removing photographs of Macron required by law to be put up in all the Mairies of the country. Rather than dropping the prosecutions the cases went all the way to the Cour de Cassation, the equivalent of the UK Supreme Court. Weird stuff.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

I’m surprised no-one’s pointed out the Orwell quote on this ‘oddly British’ behaviour, which doesn’t come from the Germans. I love the quote so excuse me for repeating it:
“In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago

Or was it about giving a boost to the French national flag industry? Of course, paid for by Brussels and ignoring EU rules on procurement.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

I’d rather have nationalism than a global totalitarian state. I don’t think I am alone in that feeling. That is why Merkel suddenly developed a fondness for it again. LOL

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

I pondered this for a long time,and came to the conclusion that Macron has actually listened to the electorate, or is running scared of the opposition.
If the former,he is a rare beast, to listen and make changes before the election.

Gerard McGlynn
Gerard McGlynn
2 years ago

Terrific !! I thought “Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys” was a good one but this even better! Come back Nelson all is forgiven.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago

Merkel’s true colours (forgive the pun) were shown when she removed her nation’s flag in disgust. She cut her teeth after all as a politician while working as a Communist apparatchik in the “information” ( read propaganda) ministry of East Germany.

Even a cursory read of any Marxist literature teaches that nationalism is the fulcrum of fascism, and a counterpoint to the internationalism of Marxist-Leninism. The anthem of its movement is after all the Internationale.

No surprise therefore that the socialist formation of Britain’s lumpen middle class has resulted in an enduring distaste for its flag and those who wave it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Douglas McNeish