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France: Half-staffing the national flag

Last modified: 2017-02-18 by ivan sache
Keywords: half-staffing |
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There is no straight translation of "to half-staff" in French, the best equivalent being abaisser à mi-mât (lit. To lower at half-staff). The French standard expression for "to half-staff" is mettre en berne, the substantive form being mise en berne.
Alain Rey (Dictionnaire historique de la langue française) dates back berne to 1676 (Porney). The word might come from the Dutch word berm, "an edge", and, especially, a river's bank. Tentative explanations are the comparison of a lowered flag sliding down the staff with a walker sliding down the bank to the river, or the comparison of a furled flag with a hem.
The expression en berne is used in Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and in French-speaking African countries.

The secondary meaning of en berne is "dispirited", used mostly in avoir le moral en berne ("to feel dispirited") but also for unexpected low profits or sales (ventes en berne).
The singer Léo Ferré has combined the primary and secondary meanings of en berne in the song Les anarchistes (public performance), as: ils ont un drapeau noir en berne de l'espoir (They have got a black flag at half-staff on hope / They have got a black flag on dispirited hope).

Ivan Sache, 3 August 2014

Legal prescriptions

Half-staffing of the national flag is legally prescribed in a single case, the decease of the President of the Republic.
Article 47 of Decree No. 655 of 30 September 1989, last modified on 21 May 2011 (text), "On public ceremonies, precedence, and civil and military honours", states:

At the time of the decease of the President of the Republic, the colours of the armed forces shall be half-staffed; the vessels of the Navy shall half-staff their flags.

This prescription is part of the "Military funeral honours" section; accordingly, it does not apply to flags hoisted on civil buildings.

Ivan Sache, 3 August 2014

Civil etiquette and customs

There is no legal prescription, either, for the etiquette of half- staffing. Guidelines are given in booklets (example) released by the department's préfectures.
Half-staffing is defined as "an official manifestation of collective mourning, consisting in lowering the flag at half-mast or furling it around the staff with a black veil, for a determined time span."
Upon request by the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister or Ministers, the Préfet shall notice the Mayors of half-staffing. The Mayors and Municipal Councils are also entitled to prescribe half- staffing at the time of the decease of the Mayor, or at the time of a tragic event involving inhabitants of the municipality.

Ivan Sache, 3 August 2014

National half-staffing

The national flag was half-staffed at the time of the decease of a few heads of states (Le Figaro, 16 December 2013).
In 1953, the government ordered the half-staffing of the flag at the time of the decease of Stalin, "in memory of war". The decision triggered strong opposition at the Parliament and in the armed forces (mostly because of the War of Indochina, where "French soldiers were being killed by Communists"). Half-staffing was eventually performed by the armed forces only in continental France. In Le Figaro, the influential writer François Mauriac commented the decision as "the sign of the contradictions in the French policy imposed by circumstances that we do not control". [G. Elgey, Histoire de la IVe République].
The flag was half-staffed at the time of decease of Popes Pius XII (1958), John XXIII (1963) and John-Paul II (2005). In the latter case, some criticized the half-staffing as a breach in the principle of secularism; President of the Republic Jacques Chirac was even accused of "abuse of power". The decease of Ronald Reagan (2004) and of Nelson Mandela (2013) were also commemorated by half-staffing.

The national flag was half-staffed to commemorate international tragic events, such at the September 11 attacks in New York (2001), the 11-M train bombings in Madrid (2004), the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda (April 2004), and the earthquake and tsunami in South-East Asia (2005).

The national flag was half-staffed at the time of two air crashes that claimed the life of several French citizens:
- West Caribbean Airways Flight 708 (Venezuela, 16 August 2005);
- Air Algérie Flight AH5017 (Mali, (23-24 July 2014) (Le Figaro, 28 July 2014).
In the latter case, the wording of the official order, "as a sign of national mourning", shed some confusion National half-staffing is usually not associated with official national mourning, which has to be proclaimed by a Decree of the Council of the Ministers. National mourning was proclaimed at the time of the decease of Presidents Charles de Gaulle (9 November 1970), Georges Pompidou (2 April 1974), and François Mitterrand (8 January 1996), after the September 11 attacks, and, for the last time (8-11 January 2015), after the terrorist attacks of 7-9 January 2015 in Paris.

Ivan Sache, 3 April 2015

Local half-staffing

As said above, the Mayors may order half-staffing at the time of different events, as exemplified by the arbitrary selection given below.

Mourning of former Ministers, Mayors, and Municipal Councillors

After the decease of the former Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy (1928-2013), the national flag was half-staffed in Lille (Nord), the town he had been Mayor from 1973 to 2001; Haussy (Nord), the village where he had spent most of his youth [La Voix du Nord, 7 June 2013]; Vitry-en-Artois (Pas-de-Calais) [Municipal info flash, July-August 2013]; and on the building of the Regional Council of Midi-Pyrénées, as a tribute to his contribution to decentralization in 1982-1983 [Toulouse Info, 7 June 2013].
After the decease of the poet Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), former Representative of Martinique (1946-1993) and Mayor of Fort-de-France (1945-2001), the flag was half-staffed on all State buildings in Martinique [La Tribune des Antilles, 17 April 2008]

The national flag was half-staffed after the decease of former Mayors or Municipal Councillors in their respective towns:
- Dominique Baudis (1947-2014), Mayor of Toulouse (1983-2001) [Toulouse Info, 10 April 2014];
- Robert Schwint (1928-2011), Mayor of Besançon (1977-2001) [Official press release, 25 January 2011];
- Jean Charbonnel (1927-2014), Mayor of Brive (1966-1995) and Minister of Scientific and Industrial Development (1972-1974) [Brive Mag, 20 February 2014];
- Michel Dasseux, former Mayor of Coulounieix-Chamiers (1989-2008) and Representative of Dordogne (1997-2007) [Sud-Ouest, 27 June 2014];
- Michel Robic, Deputy Mayor of Bonneval [L'Écho Républicain, 8 March 2014];
- Philippe Cornet, Municipal Councillor of Périgueux (Sud-Ouest, 3 June 2013]

Tribute to soldiers killed in action

The national flag was half-staffed in Castres as a tribute to two paratroopers of the local regiment killed in Centrafrican Republic [AFP, 10 December 2013], in Beauvais [L'Observateur de Beauvais, 18 July 2011] and in Sisteron [Official press release, 5 January 2012] as a tribute to local French soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Tribute to victims of violent acts

The national flag was half-staffed in Liffré as a tribute to the seven victims of the Toulouse and Montauban shootings [Ouest France, 20 March 2012; in Marignane as a tribute to a citizen killed during an armed robbery [Le Progrès, 23 August 2013], and in Meyzieu as a tribute to a child killed during a family drama [Lyon Mag, 28 September 2010].

Support to international causes

The national flag was half-staffed in Lyon (1st district) as a support to the Syrian population after the revelation of chemical attacks [Lyon Capitale, 22 August 2013]; in Autun after the crash of Malaysia Airline Flight MH 370 in Ukraine [Le Journal de Saône-et-Loire, 23 July 2014]; and in Saint-Denis (Reunion Island) as a symbol of solidarity with the inhabitants of Gaza [Official press release].

Protest against national political decisions

Following the establishment of a new schedule for the commemoration of the War of Algeria, a few Mayors ordered to half-staff the national flag on 19 March 2013, for instance in Suresnes [Official press release] and Perpignan [Ouillade, 18 March 2013].
To protest against the future building of ultra high voltage lines on the municipal territory, the Mayor of the village of Le Chefresne ordered to half-staff the flag [Ouest France, 28 June 2010].
The Mayor of Cholet, criticized by the Préfet de Région for his attitude against Roma, proclaimed the "mourning of the Republic" and half-staffed the flag [Ouest France, 5 October 2012].

The AMRF (Association of the French Rural Mayors) released on 17 June 2014 the "Appeal of 18 June", calling its members to half-staff the flag on 18 June 2014 to protest against the proposal of territorial reform [Le Courrier des Maires, 17 June 2014]. The appeal was supported by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the leader of the "sovereignist" micro-party Debout la République, who, although not a member of the AMRF, half-staffed the municipal flag in Yerres [and found yet another cheap opportunity to get some media coverage] [Official press release, 17 June 2014].

Ivan Sache, 3 August 2014