The wind of change referred to by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in his February 3, 1960 speech to the Parliament of South Africa was also blowing over the extensive African colonial empire of France. In the space of little more than a year (1959-60) that empire vanished, being replaced by fourteen new nations. Unlike Britain, however, France has maintained considerable interest and influence in its former colonies, extending in many cases to military intervention.



French colonization in Africa began in the seventeenth century with the establishment of trading posts on the coast of what is now Senegal. From this and other coastal enclaves French influence expanded into the interior, particularly during the second half of the nineteenth century. By the end of World War I the French empire in continental Africa (excluding Algeria, Tunisia and the Moroccan protectorate in the north and French Somaliland in the east) comprised twelve colonies and two League of Nations mandate territories (former German colonies). These were grouped into two federations, French West Africa (eight colonies and one mandate territory) and French Equatorial Africa (four colonies and one mandate territory). The League mandates were technically not French colonies or members of the federations but in practice they were treated as such. Each federation had a governor-general and each colony had a governor, these authorities being appointed by the French government. The national flag of all French colonies was the Tricolor and in contrast to the British Empire there were no distinctive flags or ensigns for individual colonies. During the pre-independence period (1955-60), however, some colonies were granted their own flags, several of which are depicted below. A governor-general was entitled to a square blue flag with a canton of the Tricolor and governors of colonies had a swallowtailed variant of the same. These flags were mostly used at sea.

After World War II the French Empire was renamed, first being titled the French Union and then the French Community. The flag of the latter was a Tricolor, fringed yellow, charged with the motto of the French Republic. Inhabitants of the colonies, who for the most part had been treated as subjects, gained political rights for the first time under the new arrangements, including qualified French citizenship. But in the late 1950s France decided to divest itself of its African colonies and they were all granted independence by 1960. The French Community was continued as an organization analogous to the British Commonwealth of Nations but the idea never really took root and it was abolished in 1995.

The Tricolor


Colonial Governor-General


Governor of a Colony


French Community  •  1958-95


FRENCH WEST AFRICA  •  Afrique Occidentale Française

The colonies of French West Africa received their independence in 1959-60. Senegal and Mali were originally united as the Mali Federation but this proved unworkable and Senegal succeeded in 1960. The flag of the Mali Federation was a tricolor of the Pan-African colors with a stylized image of a human being, called the kanaga, on the yellow stripe. When the federation broke down Senegal replaced the kanaga with a green star to create its national flag. Mali continued to use the federal flag for about a year. But Muslim religious objections to the depiction of the human form then led to the removal of the kanaga and since 1961 the flag of Mali has been a plain green-yellow-red-tricolor. Most of the other colonies of French West Africa adopted national flags based on the Pan-African colors but there were exceptions, e.g. Upper Volta, whose flag was a horizontal black-white-red tricolor identical to the flag of the former German Empire. Upper Volta renamed itself Burkina Faso in 1984, adopting a new flag in the Pan-African colors. Niger and the Côte d'Ivoire chose orange, white and green as their national colors. Orange symbolizes the sun, green the land and white is for peace. Mauritania, styling itself an Islamic republic, adopted a green flag with yellow star and crescent, traditional colors and symbols of Islam. Dahomey renamed itself Benin in 1975, declared itself a people's republic and adopted a new flag: green with the red star of communism in the upper hoist. This flag was abolished along with the people's republic in 1990, communism having fallen out of fashion, and the 1959-75 flag was readopted. Senegal and Togo (which was a mandate territory) were granted distinctive flags in the pre-independence period.

The Pan-African colors were taken from the flag of Ethiopia, the only country on the African continent that had successfully resisted European colonization. They were first used by the former British colony of the Gold Coast, which when it achieved independence in 1957 as the Republic of Ghana adopted a horizontal tricolor of red, yellow and green stripes with a black star on the yellow stripe.

Islamic Republic of Mauritania


Federation of Senegal and Mali  •  National Flag 1960
Republic of Mali  •  National Flag 1960-61


Republic of Mali  •  National Flag Since 1961


Senegal Pre-Independence Flag  •  1946-60


Republic of Senegal  •  National Flag Since 1960


Republic of Guinea  •  National Flag Since 1960


 Republic of Côte d'Ivoire  •  National Flag Since 1960


Republic of Upper Volta  •  National Flag  •  1959-84


Burkina Faso  •  National Flag Since 1984


Republic of Niger  •  National Flag Since 1960


Republic of Dahomey •  National Flag  •  1959-75
Republic of Benin •  National Flag Since 1990


People's Republic of Benin  •  National Flag  •  1975-90


Togo Autonomous Republic  •  1956-60


Republic of Togo  •  National Flag Since 1960


FRENCH EQUATORIAL AFRICA  •  Afrique Equatoriale Française

The colonies of French Equatorial Africa received their independence in 1958-60. Chad adopted a national flag with vertical stripes of blue, yellow and red—identical to the current national flag of Romania. At the time, however, Romania was a people's republic, its flag had the state coat of arms on the yellow stripe, and so there was no conflict. But in 1989 the People's Republic of Romania was overthrown and the new, non-communist government made the plain blue-yellow-red tricolor Romania's national flag. Since then there have been proposals, mostly in Romania, for design modifications to distinguish between the two flags. But nothing has been done so far and since Chad is a remote land-locked country, no real confusion is caused. The flag of the Central African Republic combines the Pan-African colors with the colors of France; the yellow star symbolizes independence. For a brief and farcical period in the 1970s, the state was known as the Central African Empire but its flag was not changed. Congo adopted a flag based on the Pan-African colors and when it made itself a people's republic in 1970 the new flag with its symbols of communism nevertheless maintained the colors red, yellow and green. When the people's republic was abolished in 1992 Congo readopted its original national flag.

Cameroon was a mandate territory rather than a colony and thanks to this status it was not until 1972 that the current national flag was adopted. The original German colony (Kamerun) was partitioned between France and Britain, the latter's portion being a narrow slice adjoining Nigeria. The British mandate  was eventually divided into two administrative units, called Northern Cameroon and Southern Cameroon. As independence drew near, UN-supervised plebiscites were held in both territories to determine if their inhabitants wished to join Nigeria or Cameroon. The northern territory opted for Nigeria and the southern territory chose to become part of independent Cameroon, which was organized in 1961 as a federation. The first flag of independent Cameroon had vertical stripes of green, yellow and red. In 1961 two yellow stars were placed on the green stripe, symbolizing the federal union of the French and British mandates. Finally in 1972 a new constitution was adopted, abolishing the federation and making Cameroon a unitary republic, called the United Republic of Cameroon. The country's flag was accordingly modified by replacing the two stars on the green stripe with one large yellow star on the red stripe. In 1984 the country was again renamed, becoming simply the Republic of Cameroon, but this time the flag was not changed.

The colors of the national flag of Gabon represent the land (green), the equatorial sun (yellow) and the sea (blue). Like Togo, Gabon had a pre-independence flag with a canton of the French Tricolor.

Republic of Chad  •  National Flag Since 1959

Central African Republic  •  National Flag Since 1958


Republic of Congo
National Flag 1960-70 & Since 1992


People's Republic of Congo  •  National Flag 1970-92


Republic of Cameroon  •  National Flag 1960-61


Federal Republic of Cameroon  •  National Flag 1961-72


Republic of Cameroon  •  National Flag Since 1972


Gabon  • Pre-Independence Flag 1959-60


Republic of Gabon  •  National Flag Since 1960