November 17, 2021

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. 

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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: liberté, egalité, fraternité. 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 Valéry 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.