According to the Article 2 of the French Constitution dating from the 28 September 1958, the national motto of France is ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. Now one of the symbols of sovereignty part of the national heritage, it derives from the ideals developed during the Age of Enlightenment.
‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ (in French ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’) is a tripartite motto in the form of a hendiatris, i.e. a phrase used for emphasis, in which three words are used to express one idea. The motto finds its origins in the French Revolution when it was first used in a speech from Robespierre on 5 December 1790 when dealing with the organisation of the National Guard:
‘On their uniforms engraved these words: FRENCH PEOPLE, & below: FREEDOM, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY. The same words are inscribed on flags which bear the three colours of the nation.’
During the French Revolution, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was a motto among others:
- “Liberty, Unity, Equality” (Liberté, Unité, Égalité)
- “Liberty, Equality, Justice” (Liberté, Égalité, Justice)
- “Liberty, Reason, Equality” (Liberté, raison, Égalité)
- “We are here by the will of the people and shall not leave our places save by the force of bayonets” (Nous sommes ici par la volonté du peuple et nous n’en sortirons que par la force des baïonnettes) – Mirabeau, 23 June 1789
- “Peace to the humble homes, war at the palaces“. (Paix aux chaumières, guerre aux palais)
- “Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine / aristocrats to the lamp-post / Ah! It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine, It’ll be fine / the aristocrats, we’ll hang them!” (Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira / les aristocrates à la lanterne! Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira / les aristocrates on les pendra!) – an emblematic song of the French Revolution first heard in May 1790.
From the time of Robespierre’s execution, the term Fraternity was discarded and under Napoleon I, the slogan fell into disuse. The Emperor preferred the use of another motto: “Liberty, Public Order” (in French: Liberté, Ordre Public). During the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, the motto became: “Order and Liberty” (in French: Ordre et Liberté).
The original motto ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was again adopted during the 1848 February Revolution but was made official under the Third Republic (1871-1940).
During the Second World War, the Free Zone governed by Marshal Pétain replaced the motto by another triptych: “Work, Family, Fatherland” (in French: Travail, Famille, Patrie).
‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was re-established in the aftermath of the World War Two and incorporated into the Constitutions of the Fourth Republic (1946) and the Fifth Republic (1958).
The French national motto influenced the First Article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.“
Liberté – Liberty
The term of Liberty was defined in Article 4 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen:
“Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights“.
Égalité – Equality
The term was coined in Article 6 of the 1789 Declaration in terms of judicial equality and merit-based entry to government:
[The law] “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.“
Fraternité – Fraternity (brotherhood)
The concept of Fraternity stands at odds with the two others that are defined according to rights, statutes and contracts. Fraternity – or brotherhood – is about moral obligations and harmony. At first the Christian connotation of the term was not accepted by everyone. In 1848, Fraternity reappeared with a religious dimension when Catholic priests celebrated the brotherhood of Christ and blessed Liberty Trees planted at the time.
Since the celebrations of Bastille Day on 14 July 1880, the motto has been inscribed on the pediments of many public buildings such as town-halls, public library and schools.
The slogan is also visible on a number of stamps and old French francs coins.