If you follow Parisian cultural trends with any regularity, you’ve probably seen locals reference the Latin expression “Fluctuat nec mergitur” as the city’s motto. But what does it mean– and where does it come from? Perhaps most importantly, what does the old motto have to do with current-day Parisian identity?
In modern French, Fluctuat nec mergitur translates to Il est agité par les vagues, et/mais ne sombre pas, or “He/she is rocked by waves, and/but does not sink.” A motto that vividly suggests resilience, courage and inner strength. Keep reading to learn how the expression came to appear on the city’s coat of arms, and why it’s recently re-emerged as a powerful, emotionally resonant symbol of contemporary Paris.
A Bit of History
Since at least the 14th century, Paris has had a coat of arms showing a ship with white, silvery, or gold sails against a bold red background. Generally, three or more fleur-de-lys appear above the ship: stylized lilies that have long been a symbol of French monarchy and sometimes military prowess. Most examples of the coat of arms are decorated in hues of blue, red and white, colors associated both with Paris and France as a whole.
From the Marchands de l’eau (Water Merchants) to the Second Empire
The coat of arms in fact originated with a Paris-based river guild called the Marchands de l’eau, which was founded in 1170 by royal decree to navigate the waters of the Seine between Paris and the town of Mantes. Its seal originally displayed a river boat rather than a ship.
By the 14th century, the guild had become one of the city’s most powerful commercial groups, and their emblem gained in grandiosity and decorative details, replacing the riverboat with a sailing vessel and adding the royal fleur de lys.
Eventually, around 1358, it was adapted as the coat of arms for the entire city. It did not, however, yet bear the Latin expression that would become such a central part of its visual identity in later centuries.
Read related: 5 Key Places to Connect With Medieval History in Paris
During the French Revolution of 1789 and the abolition of the monarchy, coats of arms and emblems were banned. The Parisian government complied, removing theirs from circulation and display.
While the coat of arms re-appeared in modified forms under various regimes, from the July Monarchy to the Second Republic, it wasn’t until the Second Empire and the rise of Emperor Napoleon II that the coat of arms would be restored to its pre-revolutionary guise.
In 1853, the famed city planner and prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann added the now-familiar expression to the emblem, Fluctuat nec mergitur. At the time, the heraldic motto was associated with the large-scale renovation of Paris, modernizing the city and all but eliminating its medieval layout.
According to some, the motto also took hold in the modern Paris imagination *thanks* to periodic, catastrophic flooding of the Seine River over the centuries. Its reference to “not sinking” would have certainly made it an apt slogan for survivors of these watery inondations.
Etymology and Usage
But where did the expression itself come from? It’s actually associated with a longer Latin verse that most historians attribute to Pope Gregory IX or Pope Innocent IV, and its original context is probably a war waged against Frederick II during the 13th century.
French manuscripts dating to at least the 15th century mention the medieval motto in relation to these religious figures and conflicts. And in the 1580s, the abbreviated form of the original verse started appearing on coins, which were associated with the French capital.
Where to Find the Emblem in Paris?
Since the Second Empire, the emblem and motto have appeared on numerous public buildings in Paris, including Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and the Mairies (town halls) of each of the city’s 20 municipal districts or arrondissements.
It also decorates the facades or interiors of public schools, train stations and the centuries-old Sorbonne University. Additionally, it’s part of the official livery of the Paris Fire Brigade.
The Paris Terrorist Attacks of 2015 & the Motto’s Popular Revival
Prior to November 2015, I’d never heard the now-ubiquitous motto referenced by anyone. Sure, it was perfectly visible on the aforementioned municipal buildings, but your average Parisian wasn’t necessarily aware of it– and most certainly wouldn’t have considered it an emotionally charged emblem of local identity.
All that changed after the evening of 13 November, when 131 people were senselessly murdered in the city’s worst modern terrorist attack. I won’t repeat its gory and bone-chilling details here.
Truth be told, I have been unable to bring myself to watch the (apparently excellent) Netflix documentary that tells the story of that terrible night. Like many residents and former residents, I find the shock too fresh and the memory too painful to revisit in any detail.
But in the wake of November 13th, the official motto of Paris became the defiant cri de guerre of a population determined not to let fear dominate daily life. Not to let the fact that terrorists had targeted people in concert halls, café terraces, streets and restaurants, beloved places of conversation and vibrant communion– keep them out of those places.
Not to give in to fear of one other, or fear of the streets, or fear of fully enjoying a city that’s practically synonymous with the joys and mysteries of life after sunset.
Fluctuat nec mergitur— tossed, but not sunk– became an emotionally powerful way for Parisians to tell the story of their own resilience and love for city life, in the face of unimaginable hatred and violence.
It popped up on banners, in street art, new illustrations from local artists, and even at the base of the Eiffel Tower, when the monument was lit in red, white and blue in memory of the victims of November 13th.
Most recently, following the fire that badly damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in early 2019, many commentators again called up the timeless motto as a reminder that the city has been through, and survived, countless other turbulent events and remained afloat.
Now, with the coronavirus crisis that has gripped the globe, Paris is once again facing what feels like an existential crisis as citizens confront a dangerous illness and tourism grinds to a near-halt.
Yet you can bet that Parisians will emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.
One thing seems clear: it’s an expression that has endured due to its strong emotional resonance. It moves with the times, taking on new meanings and connotations as the city changes and adapts to current-day challenges. From that standpoint, it was well-chosen.