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France: Postal flag

Last modified: 2003-05-17 by
Keywords: postal flag | service postal |
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[Post flag]by Zeljko Heimer

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Description of the flag

Flaggenbuch [neu92] shows the flag hoisted on vessels used for post service. It is a French Tricolore with the three stripes equally wide (odd for a flag at sea), a short swallow tail (1/3rd of the red stripe) and a small white canton (width: 3/4th of the width of the blue stripe; height: 1/4th of the height of the hoist) bearing in blue


The so-called "post-liners" (paquebots-poste) sailed between France and its colonies during the golden age of steam navigation and colonization, i.e. from ca. 1860 to the Second World War.
The liners were used both for passenger and freight transportation, including post service.

This flag was still shown in the 1995 recapitulative edition of Album des Pavillons [pie90]. The flag was discarded from the next release of Album [pay00], since the maritime postal service had been suppressed.

Ivan Sache, 5 November 2000

Originally, the flag was flown on a peculiar position, where the halyard is suspended from the middle of a rope which ends at the jackstaff and the foremast. Later (since the 1930s) it was flown as a jack when in port.

Miles Li, 15 October 2001

Artistic rendition of the flag

[Artistic rendition of the postal ensign]by Ivan Sache

The postal flag is shown on a poster advertising the paquebot-poste of the Messageries Maritimes company, located in Marseilles.

The artistic quality of such posters was very high, and their originals are highly prized by collectors. However, there is some artistic licence in this poster. The postal flag is shown in the poster with the fork extending all over the width of the red stripe and a larger white canton merging with the white stripe.

Ivan Sache, 5 November 2000

French postal service contracted to British ships

There was an unusual British warrant requested in connection with the French Mail Service.

In 1871 an Edinburgh shipping company applied to the British Admiralty for warrants for two of their ships to fly the French flag while under contract to carry French mails between Marseilles and ports in Algeria. Under the terms of the contract the ships would have a French crew and Captain and fly the French colours, but retain a British Master and Chief Engineer and remain registered as British ships. The warrants were requested because it was thought that flying the French flag would debar the vessels from claiming the protection and assistance of a British Consul.

The Admiralty decided that they could not issue a warrant for a British ship to fly a foreign flag, and passed the problem to the Board of Trade who asked for a legal opinion.

It was thought that under British municipal law, a British ship could fly foreign colours providing it was not done with intent to defraud or deceive, which it was not in this case, since the company had openly requested permission.
"I am therefore of opinion that as far as municipal law is concerned, vessels flying French colours under the circumstances described are subject to the same liabilities, and entitled to the same privileges as any other British vessel."

The position was different under international law.
"It is simply impossible that a vessel, British according to British law, but voluntarily assuming in the eyes of all maritime nations the character of a French ship, can lay claim to all the immunities of a British ship sailing under British colours. Supposing for instance that a vessel belonging to a nation at war with France were to fire a signal to bring her to, and, on her sailing on, were to fire into her. Is it reasonable to suppose that the British government could demand any apology or reparation? Such a question is rather for the Foreign Office than for me but I cannot conceive that there can be any doubt about the answer. I think speaking generally that as regards international law the vessels cannot in all respects claim the protection and assistance of a British Consul in the same way as British vessels carrying the British flag."

The Board of Trade thought that sanctioning British registered vessels to fly foreign flags would be pursuing a "very illegal and dangerous course", but the Admiralty and Foreign Office directed Consular Officers not to interfere if ships flew the French flag, and to provide normal consular support.

Source: Public Record Office, Kew, MT 9/59-5722.

David Prothero. 21 May 2002