Democracy & Justice

​Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité: The Meaning and History of France’s National Motto

A bit of history, with a meaningful message for today.

by Jonathan Day

What does Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité mean?

Knowledge is power.

Translated directly from French, the motto means "liberty, equality, fraternity". Less literally, however, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité are fundamental values that define French society, and democratic life in general.

Liberty, or the right to live freely and without oppression or undue restriction from the authorities, is a core value in a democratic society. So too is equality. This is not only about treating each other as equals, but also that every person is viewed equally under the law. Fraternity is not about gender or college social clubs – though the gender connotation absolutely existed when the motto was first uttered – but rather that we should all be kind and supportive to one another. At its core, it’s about solidarity – we’re all partners in building and maintaining the safe, free and fair society we all want to live in.

Taken together, “Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité” defines a set of values and way of life that most of us would agree with, and forms the foundation for a society we want to live in.

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Historical background of the motto: where did it come from?

While the motto liberté, egalité, fraternité originated in France, the values it espoused were not new. The idea that people should treat each other fairly and respectfully, and that rulers should treat their subjects thusly, is very old. Moreover, the values liberté, egalité, fraternité form a belief system that would eventually lead to modern-day human rights treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the United Nations in 1948.

But back to France, where liberté, egalité, fraternité was born from struggle, when Frenchman sought to free themselves from the yoke of an oppressive monarchy during the French Revolution. Although there is some debate about who first uttered the phrase, credit is most often given to Maximilien de Robespierre, a French statesman who campaign for suffrage for all adult men and an end to slavery.

Interestingly, the inclusion of fraternité was not without criticism. In response to its inclusion, journalist Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen as a response. And it was not the only slogan used during or after the French Revolution. There were a number of others that highlighted the virtues of freedom, security and basic rights, and none of these other slogans included the word fraternité.

What did the motto stand for back then?

While the literal meaning of liberté, egalité, fraternité is fairly self-explanatory, the motto was seen as a catch-all for the basic rights and freedoms of French people (and, yes, most especially men). It was a clear shot at the power of the monarchy and clergy – all men are equal in the eyes of God, and none shall be denied the rights afforded to others.

Fraternité was also suggestive of the importance of French people seeing themselves as being together in struggle, united by their beliefs and nationality. Whether this struggle was internal, such as against a ruthless government, or external, for example against those pesky English.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité: what does it mean to people now?

Liberté, egalité, fraternité endures as the national motto of France. And today it still represents the same struggle against inequality, division and abuse of power that it did during the French Revolution. That said, French culture is far more complex than it was then. This has led to some revision of the motto’s interpretation.

Marc-Olivier Padis, of the think tank Terra Nova, says that today "the words are the same but the meaning has changed". In particular, he notes that fraternity, the most potentially troubling of the three words, “has gained a new meaning; that it's not just an attachment to the country, but also to everyday relationships".

And as France has become far more diverse since liberté, egalité, fraternité was coined, equality has undergone perhaps that biggest shift in meaning. That’s because inequality persists in so many areas. Economic inequality, geographical inequality, racial inequality, religious inequality – for many people, all of these areas are included under the umbrella of “egalité”.

This change in meaning traces the course of France’s history. Among other events, colonialism, the two World Wars, and the rise of extremist groups, often rooted in some way in cultural or religious identity, have all helped change the interpretation and application of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

What will the future bring for the worldwide famous French motto?

It’s hard to say. The motto is deeply important to many French people, a source of pride that encapsulates the values of a modern and diverse France. But it means different things to different people. Many still feel that its values of equality, liberty and solidarity apply in their truest form, to all people. Others, however, especially those of the Rassemblement Nationale and other right-wing movements, apply the motto only to French citizens. They even go so far as to suggest that migrants are being treated even better than citizens, and that citizenship should be harder to attain.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

Cultural and demographic shifts also influence how the motto is understood by people. Many believe that secularism is also a core French value and an inherent part of liberté, egalité, fraternité. So they don’t see any violation of the motto when they support bans on, for example, headscarves and other religious garments. And going forward, economic anxiety will persist, and France could become even more diverse in many ways. This could encourage greater emphasis on individual identity, which widens the gap between what the motto will mean and what it meant during the French Revolution.


What does it mean?

"Liberty, equality, fraternity". Less literally, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité are fundamental values that define French society, and democratic life in general.

Where did it come from?

The motto originates from the French Revolution, when it was a rallying cry against the oppressive monarchy and a call for basic rights for the French people.

How has its meaning changed through centuries?

The motto still holds meaning as a struggle for the basic rights of freedom, equality and non-discrimination. As France has modernized and become more diverse, today the motto is much more about economic, racial and religious equality than it used to be.

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