An official seal, which is a distinctive sign of power, was held in the Middle Ages and under the French Old Regime by the various civilian and religious authorities, and by the King himself.
Today, the use of the French seal is reserved exclusively for official occasions such as the signing of the Constitution and any amendment to the Constitution. The current seal of the French Republic is that of the Second Republic, which was minted in 1848.
Under the Old Regime, the Chancellor – Grand Officer of the Crown – who held second rank behind the Constable, was a key figure. As a permanent figure, he did not wear mourning dress upon the King’s death, while the seal of the deceased was ritually broken. He was responsible for physically guarding the seals, and presided over the sealing of documents which involved many staff. In 1718, the Chancellor was allocated a building which the Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals, still occupies, on Place Vendôme in Paris.
When the Revolution succeeded, the gold seal of Louis XVI was melted down to recover the metal. A decree from 1792 determined for the first time the content of the new seal of the Republic: a woman standing, holding a staff with a cap and, in the other hand, a fasces.
Napoleon adopted a seal with typical symbols of the Empire such as bees and the imperial crown. Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X chose iconography similar to that of the Old Regime, with fleurs de lys. Louis Philippe, meanwhile, introduced the tricolore flag alongside the arms of the Orléans family.
An order dated 8 September 1848 described the seal of the Second Republic, which is still used today. The engraver of coins, Mr Jean-Jacques Barré, produced the new seal of the State without exactly complying with the terms of the decree, particularly concerning the position of the writing. A seated woman, symbol of Liberty, holds in her right hand a fasces and in her left hand a rudder on which a Gallic cock appears, with its foot on a globe. An urn with the initials SU recalls the great innovation represented by the adoption of direct universal suffrage in 1848. At Liberty’s feet can be seen the representations of the arts and agriculture. The seal is inscribed with “French Republic – One and indivisible” on one side, and two phrases – “In the name of the French people” and “Equality, Fraternity” – on the other. The 1848 order also determined the type of seals and stamps that courts and notaries should use.
The Third, Fourth and Fifth Republics used the same seal. Under the Fourth Republic, it appears that only the Constitution was sealed. Since 1958, the Constitution and some constitutional acts amending it were officially sealed using a yellow wax seal on a ribbon of tricolour silk. That was the case, for example, of constitutional act 2008-724 of 23 July 2008 on the modernization of the institutions of the Fifth Republic.
The press used to produce the seal is conserved in the office of the Minister of Justice, who is still known as the “Keeper of the Seals.”