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Living in the Languedoc:   Central Government:   French National Symbols:   The Coat of Arms of France

The traditional arms of France. Since the late 12th century the arms of France were "Azure, a semis of fleurs-de-lis or" - golden fleur-de-lis scattered on a blue background. In 1376 it was changed to "Azure, three fleurs-de-lis or" - just three fleur-de-lys arranged two and one. Ignoring the French Republic, heralds around the world refer to these two variations of the French arms as "France ancient" and "France Modern".

Coat of arms of English kings after about 1405Coat of arms of English kings up to around 1405Until 1801 the Kings of England claimed the French throne. Since France was regarded as the senior kingdom, they quartered the arms of France and England with France in the first quarter. When the French kings changed their arms, the English kings did the same thing (around 1405). The arms of France modern still appear today in the full achievement of arms of Canada - twice. See below left.

The achievement of Arms of Canada still features the arms of France Modern: one on the shield and again on the banner held by the sinister supporter (the unicorn)The personal French royal arms were the same, except with a white (technically silver) background. Showing gold on silver was a deliberate breach of heraldic convention, emphasising that the king was above all human law (the Kings of Jerusalem did the same, and so did the popes - as they still do even today).

The French coat of arms - in the original literal sense of the word coatThe medieval crown was open and decorated with fleurs-de-lis From 1515 representations show a closed crown. Previously only the Emperor used a closed crown). and it may be that the reason for adopting a closed imperial crown was the ceding by Andreas Paleologue (1453-1502), nephew of the last emperor Constantine XI, of his rights to the Byzantine empire to Charles VIII, on 11 September 1494. The supporters were two Evangelists, but from about 1423 they were replaced by two angels.

Click on the following link for more on the Seal of King Louis IX

French 20 centime stamp, 1943. The arms of France Ancient are still used by the Ile de France.

The Modern Arms of the French Republic. Coats of arms (technically achievements of arms) were associated with royalty and aristocracy, and as such French republicans have always been uneasy about using them. The association with the Ancien Régime is simply too close.

A compromise solution is to use arms that deliberately ignore heraldic convention and that are so mangled that they are hardly recognisable as arms. The emblem on the left is an example. It shows a distorted crescent shaped shield (with a lion's head!) in the centre of the design bearing the cypher FR for République Française (French Republic) - another heraldic infelicity. Until it is pointed out, or highlighted as on the right, you would be hard pressed to notice that the lion headed device represents an heraldic shield.

The symbolism of the other background elements is as follows:

  • The ax bound up with sticks is a fasces: a symbol associated with justice. It derives from Roman lictor's axes and the sticks represent strength in unity. The symbol has been widely used since ancient times including of course in recent times by the fascists, who took their name from this ancient device. It also appears on the Great Seal of France.
  • The olive branch behind the arms symbolises peace
  • The oak branch behind the arms symbolises long life (for the 5th Republic). This also appears on the Great Seal of France.

The design for the modern coat of arms of France was originally adopted by the French Foreign Ministry for use by diplomatic and consular missions in 1912. The design was drawn up by the sculptor Jules-Clément Chaplain. It has been used more widely a symbol of France since 1953.

The significance of 1953 is that in that year France was asked by the United Nations for a copy of its national coat of arms - to be displayed alongside the coats of arms of other member states in the UN assembly chamber. An inter-ministerial commission asked Robert Louis (1902-1965), an heraldic artist, to produce a version of the existing design by Chaplain.

This did not amount to the adoption of an official coat of arms by the Republic, although the symbol is widely used, especially in its original diplomatic setting - for example on plaques marking French consulates around the world and on the cover of French passports. Variations on the same basic theme also exist. For example the design on the left was used in the nineteenth century, and the one on the right is still in use today. They both feature the fasces and olive and oak branches. The one on the left features the cypher FR and the tricolore, and the one on the right the motto of the French Republic.

The arms of France is one of the gererally recognised symbols of sovereignty not mentioned in article 2 of the French Constitution of 1958, which refers only to le drapeau tricolore, bleu, blanc, rouge: The French Flag , L'hymne national, the national anthem, The Marseillaise and La devise de la République; the motto . "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité".

Another un-heraldic option is to represent the French national flag, the French Tricolore, on a coat of arms. You will see this on many hotels de ville (town halls) and village mairies. You'll also see similar representations on Police and military badges as on the left. Sometimes these bogus "arms" feature the ultimate heraldic crime - the addition of a cypher - in this case "FR" as in the examples above right.

Yet a nother option is to take any typically French emblem, such as a cockerel (US rooster) and place it on a shield.

Click here for information on International Heraldry



Back.   The French National Cypher: RF Up  a level to the French National Symbols page The French National Holiday: Bastille Day, 14th July   Forward.
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The Cross of Lorraine
French National Symbols:
The French Coat of Arms