On 20 June 2018, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a French MP from the leftist party “La France insoumise”, discovered a European flag in the chamber of the French National Assembly. He exclaimed, “Frankly, must we put up with that? This is the French Republic here, not the Virgin Mary”.
Since the incident, “France insoumise” MPs have made repeated attacks on the symbol of the European Union. On 11 October 2018, Alexis Corbière spoke up against the flag, in the name of “laïcité”, the French concept of secularism. “[The flag’s] creator, Mr Arthur Heitz, always accepted that this a religious symbol”, claimed the MP. “This symbolism of blue background and twelve stars is directly inspired by the holy medallion dedicated to the Virgin Mary that Mr Heitz wore around his neck, which came from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal [in Paris]”, he added.
Might the EU flag be a cover for Christian symbolism? Officially, not at all: “the stars stand for the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe”, says the official EU website. “The number of stars has nothing to do with the number of member countries, though the circle is a symbol of unity.”
The flag became official in two stages: in 1983 the European Parliament voted to make it an emblem, then in 1985 EU heads of state and government ratified the decision.
Before becoming the EEC and EU flag, it was the flag of the Council of Europe, which had 15 members at the time. In the early 1950s the Council was looking for a flag, and it is to this period that Alexis Corbière alluded. The story is that Arthur Heitz, a civil servant and painter, submitted a design for a blue flag with a circle of 12 gold stars, and that his idea was accepted. But this narrative is called into question by testimony from the time.
Heitz was apparently inspired by a 12-starred medal, that of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Paris. The story is corroborated by a single witness, Pierre Caillon, a church pastor who has since passed away. On his website, Caillon recounted a meeting with Heitz in 1989. That was the year the painter supposedly confided his story about the flag’s genesis to the Catholic periodical Magnificat. However, no trace of this periodical can be found in the catalogue of the Royal Library of Belgium, nor in the Vatican library. A periodical of the same name does exist but it was founded in 1992.
Robert Bichat, the rapporteur charged with supervising the creation of the flag, tells another story about the meaning of the flag: “Against a blue background signifying the sky of the Western world, stars representing the people of Europe form a circle as a sign of union. The invariable number of stars is twelve, symbol of perfection and plenitude.” Various prospective flags were presented before the one we know today was chosen. Among the candidates, ones featuring the cross, a Christian symbol, were rapidly discarded, says Robert Bichat: “The inspection quickly revealed the impossibility of using an emblem in which the cross figured. After all, the Council of Europe included a non-Christian people: Turkey. And most socialists from various countries of Europe were hostile to the symbol.” In such a context, contrary to the suggestion of the *France insoumise* MPs, it was unlikely that a flag making explicit reference to Christianity would be adopted.
In a news report, Paul Lévy, the Belgian who was director of Information and Press at the Council of Europe in the 1950s and took part in the flag’s creation, also remembers several designs being rejected. The members of the Council of Europe eventually agreed on a circle of stars, but disagreement continued over their number. There were 15 at first, but the number fell to 12 for reasons of politics and superstition (avoiding the number 13).
“It was then that there reappeared the idea, which I had already proposed as a compromise, of adopting 12 as a symbolic and permanent choice”, explains Lévy. For him, twelve is “a sign of perfection and plenitude, it’s the number of signs in the Zodiac, the number of labors of Hercules, the number of apostles, the number of sons of Jacob, the number of hours per day and months per year.” In the news report, Paul Lévy is presented as the creator of the European flag.
So who is really at the origin of the circle of twelve stars against a blue background? It is very likely that it was a collective enterprise, the fruit of compromises between member nations of the Council of Europe, as related by Paul Lévy and Robert Bichat. And not the work of a single man inspired by Catholicism.