Symbols of the nation in the USA, the UK and France

A symbol of the US government The news last week was dominated by the commemoration of the terrorist attacks on New York & Washington on September 11th 2001. During such difficult moments people often try unite around their nations. In this context, symbols of the nation become important. However, such symbols will vary from country to country. 

Americans uniting around the US flag

Stars ans stripes on products

The US flag can be found on many household products

The aftermath of traumatic events such as the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 can be very revealing about a nation. One thing that many foreign visitors notice when arriving in the USA is the number of flags. These are prominent not only in official buildings and the like but often placed in people’s gardens or on cars or in any number of public places.

This is less surprising when you know that the Stars & Stripes flag is the very symbol of the nation itself. In many countries a flag is a mere formal identification. In the USA it is a unifying emblem.

In the US, stars and stripes can be found in the strangest of places

Indeed, so strong is this identification that it is said that by 11am on Wall MartSeptember 11, Wal-Mart was furiously buying up flags across the entire country. Having always prided itself on the speed in reacting to events, the retailing giant realised that a wave of patriotism would sweep across the nation.

By September 12th other retailers who had not been so quick off the mark, found themselves in great difficulty finding any wholesaler with any flags left. This is undoubtedly great business sense by the Wal-Mart, though I have to confess that the coldness of the action itself leaves me a little uneasy.

The British and the Monarchy

As a diverse nation based on the political reunion of four former states (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) the British find it harder to unite around the Union Jack. Having separate football and rugby teams and yet competing in world championships and the Olympics as Great Britain leaves a lot of ambiguity in the minds of many Brits about the whole nation thing.

George VI. - Kings Speech

The British united around their monarchy in troublesome times.

Traditionally, the British united around their monarchy in times of trouble. The success of the excellent film, The King’s Speech, highlights this. The future George VI finds himself handicapped by his stammer at a time when the country expects him to speak for the nation. Ironically, it is this period and the invention of media that leads to the demise of the monarchy as a symbol.

“There was a time,” laments George V, “When a king just had to look good in a uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we have to invite ourselves into people’s home and ingratiate ourselves with them.”

Ultimately, this made them an ordinary family just like the rest of us and therefore less pertinent as a strong symbol of what a nation should be. It is difficult to bring detached strength to others when, like them, you have marital problems and your kids are behaving badly in public.

Buckingham Palace; home of the British monarchy

Buckingham Palace; home of the British monarchy. Still bringing in the tourists, but not quite the symbol of unity that it used to be.

One thing that does remain though. In the UK it is illegal to publicly disfigure anything that carries the portrait of the Queen as it is considered on attack on the nation as a whole. You may have money to burn (lucky you!) but don’t do it in Britain. The late French singer, Serge Gainsbourg, once burned a 500 Francs note on television. Had he tried the same stunt in the UK he would not only have shocked viewers but could have been arrested.

The French and La France as a real person

Being a monarch has been a dangerous occupation in France for the past couple of hundred years (the hours and the pay were decent but you tended to lose your head in the end). National unity has therefore been replaced by the personification of La France. French politicians fill their speeches with reference to La France wanting this or not wanting to do that.


Marianne – symbol of French identity

If this were not clear enough, there is even a lady figure, Marianne, that really brings things to life. Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve & Laëtitia Casta have all posed as models for the sculpture. A few years ago, when it became known that the latter was thinking of moving to live in London (for tax reasons) there were outcries from some parts of French society with talk of the symbolic demise of the country if Marianne herself decided to abandon the nation. Fortunately, Ms. Casta eventually decided to stay put, saving the statue from a few marbled blushes.

Symbols of national identity may then vary from nation to nation, but at times of major events they can still play a role in helping people find common ground within their own country.  I would be very interested in hearing from people from other countries as to what they consider the strong symbols of their own national identity.

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under France, Great Britain, Intercultural, Leadership, USA

26 responses to “Symbols of the nation in the USA, the UK and France

  1. Gabriel Bouffard

    Canadians have a important attachment to the maple leaf; the country’s emblem. Beyond representing our pride in the nation’s human and natural resources, it also continually reminds us of our origins. Another symbolic figure in our culture is the beaver. Beaver skin commerce helped our country to develop as it was one of the first economic activity to take place in Canada. This animal is now protected by many organisms and it figures on our nickel.

    • Mark Thomas

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and to comment, Gabriel.

      This is a really good example and it is true that when you visit Canada maple leaves seem to be everywhere. It is another illustration of such symbols developing over time rather than being a deliberate strategy.
      Thanks again for your insight.

  2. Srikanth Vemuri

    In my opinion, Indians value their National Flag as the most important of symbols, as it developed through the long freedom struggle, which in itself was instrumental in uniting the diverse cultures. The Flag transcends almost all the cultural barriers, and represents the cause that united us all like nothing before. Further, it was influenced by the philosophies of those who are regarded as the greatest Indians of all time (Gandhi and Asoka, for instance).

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for your comments, Srikanth. It is true that the Indian flag is also omnipresent when travelleing across the country. As you say, something that has been developed through struggle will always be a powerful symbol for peoples and will help to unite them.

  3. Hu Yuwen

    From my view, many things could represent China: Chinese dragon, great wall

    • Mark Thomas

      Dear Hu Yumen,
      Thank you for taking the time to read the article and to make a comment. I have been lucky to visit China many times and when writinh this blog fiond it difficult to find one definitive example for the country. I think that your idea of the dragon is probably spot on.

  4. Michelle Gannon

    The two countries I can account for are Ireland and Germany:

    On the one hand you have Ireland, a small coutry that fought a long fight to gain their independence. Irish people are extremely proud of their country and enjoy showing their culture by wearing sport jerseys, drinking guinness and whiskey, playing traditional Irish instruments such as the tin whistle and also irish sports such as gaelic football or hurling. The more touristic symbol of Ireland is the Leprechaun.

    On the other hand I can account for Germany, a country with a very dark history where it for many years was not acceptable to show pride in the country. National symbols in particular, such as the eagle or the german flag, were not acceptable to display publically with pride, as there was always a certain stigma attached to being ‘too german’ and the horrors of the third Reich were not to be forgotten.
    In 2006 this all changed, and through Germany hosting the FIFA world cup it became socially acceptable to show pride in Germany and the German flag which during this period was to be seen everywhere.
    Other symbols such as Brezels, Beer, Lederhosen and german cars are also worth mentioning.

    • Mark Thomas

      Lots of alcohol in your examples, Michelle! You obviously know these countries very well!! With Ireland having beaten Australia in the World Cup today, I don’t think there will be much Guinness left in the pub this evening. And many congratualtions to them for a great performance. (Sorry, Australia!)

      Jokes apart, consuming alcohol can be important to people because they are festive moments where they can talk freely and therefore, define themeselves.Your comments also highlight perfectly the fact that there may not just be ONE symbol of a nation. It may be several things that give people a sense of belonging to a nation. I was also interested in your remark about flags in Germany. This is one very good example, but Germany is not the only country where flag waving is frownd upon. In fact, many European countries save this for sporting events or important matters of state.

      Many thanks for your very interesting comments, Michelle.

    • Cormac Reddy

      It’s said in Ireland that the three things we most identified with were Fianna Fail (political party), the Catholic Church and the GAA (organisation of irish sports). It’s interesting how much that has changed in such a short time – Fianna Fail is currently at around 7% approval rating and everyone knows the story of the Catholic Church. The GAA, however, is going from strength to strength and, looking at the comments from Irish in America and Africa on the Irish Times website yesterday when the football final was on, it certainly seems to be the main thing that unites people abroad with their family at home.
      As for having a definable symbol though, I guess we don’t have one really obvious one. We have the harp and the flag, but I wonder how many foreigners would recognise those as being Irish? Internationally, the Guinness logo is probably the most recognised.
      What’s most interesting for me is how no other country seems to have the same connection to a symbol that Americans have. It makes me wonder if the founding fathers had some ingenious marketing plan to make the flag a national symbol, possibly because they had no previous history to identify with?

      • Mark Thomas

        Thanks for the very interesting comments. Institutions can be very important, but as you point out, they are subject to changes in public opinion. And I agree with you that few countries seem to be so attached to their flag as Americans.

  5. Your view of French and ‘La France’ inspire me. Could I say that, the French join together just for the feeling of freedom and being real!

    As far as I am concerned, Chinese symbol is the more than 5000 years’ glorious history. The brilliant history that make us proud of being the united Chinese, the ‘Zhonghua Er Nv’(中华儿女). And it’s the glorious history stimulates the younger generation to create and invent. And it’s also the ancient and modern history that make china conservative and lack of freedom.

    As to the five star flag, the political Party and the dragon, I think they are not the symbols of China. The flag is just created by the Party, and the Party is just the arbitrary government, who did a lot of stupid things this year. As to the imaginary dragon, it represents for super power and strength. It’s the symbol of the ancient royal family.

    The Chinese need to change to think critically and creatively about the past history and the emerging challenges.

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you Miao You for your very candid remarks. Sense of history is something that comes across very strongly to foreign visitors to China. It is clear that this is very important to them.. The famoulsly mistranslated quote from Zhou Enlai “Too soon to say” about the French Revolution (he was actually talking about the student riots in France in 1968) is symbolic in itself of this notion of time.

  6. First of all, I must say that this was a very clever post, and something that I don’t think many people would have thought of to write about. I’ve often thought about what it is that makes Americans have a different view of their flag, and when I read your line, “In many countries a flag is a mere formal identification. In the USA it is a unifying emblem”, it summed it all up for me. Well done, Mark.

    As you know, I’m Canadian, and I would have to agree with Gabriel in that the Maple Leaf and the beaver are very strong symbols of our country, but I would also venture to say that perhaps we should probably take it a step further and add Maple Syrup to the list as well…we Canadians would be nothing without it. 😉

    Excellent article, Mark!

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for your very kind remarks, Christine. I think you’re right about the syrup!

      In fact, reading your reply made me think of an incident that occured last year. I was able to help a student from Quebec who was studying in Grenoble. As a thank you, she gave me a tin of maple syrup. Looking back I realise how proud she was when she gave it to me. She wasn’t just giving me something to put on my pancakes; it was almost as though she passing on a part of her culture. It was obviously quite important to her. So I think you are spot on. And the syrup was delicious….another 2 kilos to try and run off! Keep up with your excellent blog.

      PS. If you are at, or about to go to, university, and you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. It is really well written, fun and gives a great feeling for what it is like being a student.) PCC Advantage

    • Gabriel Bouffard

      I have to say … Maple syrup one thing I miss a lot !

  7. I concur with Srikanth that the only symbol that truly unites Indians is the national flag. Given the huge diversity in India, there is no other symbol that can unite us as effectively as the tricolour. What you may find strange though is that ordinary Indians got the right to personally hoist and display the flag quite recently, unlike in other countries like the USA. In India, only certain institutions could display the flag and that too on certain public holidays with prior permission.

    • Mark Thomas

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article. I didn’t know about the rights to hoist the flag in India. This is really interesting. Do you know when the laws were changed? Many thanks again for your comments.

      • While there is no statute bought out on this issue, executive guidelines that are statutory in nature were issued on a time by time basis. The laws were changed with effect from 26 January 2002 (Republic Day) by the government by issue of the Flag Code of India, 2002. (Read details here

        It may interest you that these changes were brought about on an appeal filed by Naveen Jindal, scion of a prominent politico-business family in the judiciary. Incidentally, the changes were brought about by the BJP led government, which fights on a rightwing nationalistic electoral platform. On the other hand Naveen Jindal is a member of parliament (elected afterwards in 2004 and 2009) on a Congress ticket, which, is in government now.

        In case you follow Indian news, you may have known that India was recently engulfed in a series of protests led by a Gandhian, who sat on a hunger strike in Delhi to force the government to pass a stronger anti-corruption law. On stage, you would see several members of his team frantically waving the national flag. In previous times this would have been illegal and was made possible only be removing (in my personal opinion) was a ridiculous response to the genuine need to protect the dignity of the flag.

      • Mark Thomas

        Thank you very much indeed Chetan for taking to the time to find this information. I think very few people outside of India (including myself until now) are aware the history of the Indian flag. I had been following the recent events in New Delhi, and the example you give of the new found freedom to wave the flag is fascinating. Once again, thank you for you time in expalining this.

  8. Wei GAO

    In my point of view, sometimes traditional clothes can be a symbol of unified nation. Chinese cheongsam and Japanese kimono are good cases in point. Although in this modern society, people can chose to wear any clothes as they wish, traditional costume still represent a national civilization and culture. I have a personal experience, when once I got my cheongsam on here, many people on the road say”你好”(means hello)to me, see, that’s the symbol.
    I don’t know whether this idea is to your point, but I really want to tell you that.

    • Mark Thomas

      Thanks for reading the article and making a comment. It is true that clothes can identify people, though today peopel wear traditonal garments less and less or only for festive occasions. That’s probably why people were so friendly to you when you wore you costume. Perhaps you should do it more often.

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