Many nations are represented by the symbol of an animal. Normally, they choose one whose characteristics reflect those of the country: The United Kingdom chose the brave lion and the United States claims the majestic bald eagle. What animal do you think represents France? … The barnyard rooster.
Of course, France has other symbols – such as Marianne, the tricolor flag, the national anthem, etc. But the oldest emblem of France is the Gallic rooster (or le coq gaulois in French). In fact, it was used to represent the people of this region before they were even French.
Blame it on the Romans
To find out how this came about, we have to go way back to the Roman era when the area now known as France was part of Gaul. Gaul was a large region made up of modern-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, northern Italy, and bits of the Netherlands and Germany. It was inhabited by several Gallic tribes.
In 58 BC Rome and Gaul were “best enemies.” They had been attacking each other for a few hundred years, and Julius Caesar was just about to put an end to it. He began the Gallic Wars to take over the land of Gaul.
It was the invading Romans who were responsible for making the barnyard bird the symbol of France. It seems that in Latin, the word gallus meant both “the people of Gaul” and “cockerel.” The Romans had a good laugh at those “roosters” who were arrogant enough to stand up and crow as if they were a match for the imperial Roman eagle. So, they used the image of the rooster as a way to belittle and deride the people of Gaul.
But the Gauls were brave in battle and decided to adopt their feathered namesake as a symbol of courage – because roosters will fight to protect their flock and will take on any other animal no matter how big. The image of the Gallic rooster stuck. In the fifth century when the Romans disappeared and the Franks came along, the coq gaulois was already engrained in the culture.
Two of France’s favorite Gauls are the comic book heroes, Asterix and Obelix. In the image above, they are probably off on another adventure to fight those pesky Romans. Notice that they’re taking their rooster along with them.
The cockerel began to officially represent the French nation during the Renaissance when the French kings used the bird’s image to decorate official emblems and coins. But the humble rooster really had something to crow about when the French Revolution came along.
The cockerel was an animal of the people in a revolution of the people. The revolutionaries used his image to represented vigilance and hard work. He woke up the peasants when it was time to start their day’s labor and he would alert them to any disturbances during the night. The red comb on top of his head made it seem as if he wore his own red Phrygian cap – the revolutionary red bonnet symbolizing liberty.
But then Napoleon came along and declared himself emperor. He knocked the rooster right off his roost and banished him from his role as representative of France. The Emperor claimed the cockerel was not strong and it was unworthy to represent such a great empire as France. In its place, he adopted the imperial eagle.
Modern French Rooster
In 1870 when the Third Republic was adopted, the rooster crowed, flapped his wings, and hopped back up on the roost where he has stayed ever since. He has been featured on postage stamps, coins, mayoral insignias, war propaganda, war memorials, etc. During the second World War, he became a symbol of resistance, courage, and patriotism.
Why is it that the lowly coq gaulois has stood the test of time as a symbol of France? Did the Romans hit the nail on the head all those centuries ago?… Does the rooster relate in some way to the French character? Are the French proud, boastful, and courageous like their feathered representative?… Well, according to some, the rooster is the perfect symbol for France because it’s the only animal that still crows with pride even when he’s standing in la merde (crap).
Today the cockerel is a minor symbol of the republic, but he’s still going strong in the world of sports. France’s national football team has worn shirts bearing a Gallic rooster for more than 100 years. They even have a live rooster mascot who attends all the games and inspires their cockiness.
And, in case you are wondering what French roosters say in the mornings – they shout cocorico, the French version of cockadoodledoo. “Cocorico!” is also an exclamation of national pride used whenever the French want to crow about some national victory or accomplishment.
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New Book – My new book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France is out now and available on Amazon. I will be presenting it at our local Meet the Authors program in Nice on June 3. If you are in the area, please come by.