As if you needed more reasons to despise Nicolas Sarkozy! Well, this one we can’t even blame on him. Shall I explain? The national flag of France is a tricolour of three equal vertical stripes of blue, white, and red. Excepting the heady days of the Bourbon restoration, this has consistently been the French flag for the past two centuries now. A little while into the Sarkozy presidency, however, I began noticing a change only in the French flag as displayed whenever the President gave a press conference. The white stripe was reduced in width by half and the space on either side given to the neighbouring colours. The obvious deduction made was that the President wanted all three colours of the national flag shown whenever there were close-up press photographs of himself, and research confirms that this is the case. This shows an awareness for visual representation, but is nonetheless a highly unusual assault on the official flag of a nation.
However, the narrow-striped flag is not an innovation introduced by Sarkozy, although most widely used by him. It first appeared during the Mitterand presidency in 1994, during an interview on the television programme Mots croisés. Jacques Chirac continued the occasional use of this modified flag, which in March 1999 drew comment in a letter to the editor of the Belfort newspaper Le Pays:
I have been having my doubts for years under the presidency of François Mitterrand; his successor, Jacques Chirac, confirmed my doubts. Indeed, our national emblem, born during the Revolution, was modified on the sly and nobody reacted. Our flag shall be made of three vertical blue, white and red stripes of equal size, which is no longer the case, at least for the flag of the Élysée Palace. The white stripe was reduced by half under the presidency of François Mitterrand, and his successor seems to put up with this flag. How can a man, even if he is the President of the Republic, assume the right of changing our flag? I know well that white symbolizes royalty and that by “republicanism” François Mitterrand wanted to make a lasting impression, but there are probably texts, regulations, and maybe a law defining precisely our emblem. I know well that today the “Prince” sometimes decides on his own, against the course of history. It is great time to come back to a more republican conception of our emblem and one of our deputies or our senators should ask a question to the government on this matter.
It was years before anyone took up the letter-writer’s suggestion. On May 23, 2002, Senator Jean-Louis Masson submitted a written question to the defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie: “Should the tricolour flag have its three stripes of equal dimensions?” The minister’s eventual response was that the Constitution “states that the tricolore blue, white, red flag is the national emblem of France, but does not give any precision about the width of each stripe; therefore, the former dispositions should be considered as unchanged.”
Can you imagine if politicians throughout the world started arbitrarily and without authority changing their national flags for the purposes of press conferences? Thankfully, this practice has not been noticed anywhere but the Elysée and, as in the photo up top, in places the President travels and his hosts apparently give in to his request for the mis-proportioned flag. Wiser hosts should not give in to such megalomaniacal manipulation of national emblems.