18: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

France (1789)
François Fénelon

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, the famous slogan of the French Revolution – well, yes and no. The phrase has a history almost as turbulent as that of France itself. While it did first appear during the 1789 revolution, it was only one slogan of many at the time and, even then, was not always used in its complete form. ‘Force, Égalité, Justice’ (Strength, Equality, Justice), ‘Liberté, Sûreté, Propriété’ (Liberty, Security, Property) and ‘Union, Force, Vertu’ (Union, Strength, Virtue) were among competing mottos in use while ‘Union’ or ‘Amitié’ (Friendship) were sometimes substituted for the troublesome, inexact concept of Fraternité. Some claim that the bookseller, politician and printer Antoine-François Momoro invented the phrase in 1789 but the French government’s official stance is that the three terms were first linked by the theologian and archbishop François Fénelon almost a century earlier.

From 1793 onwards, the words ‘Unity, indivisibility of the Republic; liberty, equality or death’ began to appear painted on the front of Parisian houses. A British prisoner in 1794 also recorded seeing the more familiar form of the phrase on board the ship on which he was held captive.

But the spirit of revolution waned and, under Napoleon, the phrase disappeared from use only to reappear during the next French revolution, in 1848. When a constitution was drafted that year, the motto was defined as a ‘principle’ of the Republic but was discarded again just four years later with Napoleon III demanding its removal from all official documents and buildings.

After France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871, it came back into favour although ‘solidarity’ was preferred by some to the dangerously socialist-sounding ‘equality’. The motto was once again displayed on public buildings where it remained until the German occupation during the second world war and Vichy leader Marshall Pétain’s attempts to substitute the fascistic ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’ (Work, Family, Country). After the Allied victory, however, ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ was finally written into the French constitution. Today, as well as on buildings, it can be found on stamps, money and on the French government logo introduced in 1999.

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