Great Seal of France
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The Great Seal features Liberty personified as a seated Juno wearing a crown with seven arches. She holds a fasces and is supported by a ship's tiller with a cock carved or printed on it. At her feet is a vase with the letters "SU" ("Suffrage Universel", "Universal suffrage"). At her right, in the background, are symbols of the arts (painter's tools), architecture (Ionic order), education (burning lamp), agriculture (a sheaf of wheat) and industry (a cog wheel). The scene is surrounded by the legend "RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, DÉMOCRATIQUE, UNE ET INDIVISIBLE" ("French Republic, democratic, one and indivisible") and "24 FEV.1848" (24 February 1848) at the bottom.
The reverse bears the words "AU NOM DU PEUPLE FRANÇAIS" ("in the name of the French people") surrounded by a crown of oak (symbol of perenity) and laurel (symbol of glory) leaves tied together with weed and grapes (agriculture and wealth), with the circular national motto "LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ".
The first seals were created by the Merovingian kings to authenticate their orders. Merely rings originally, later worn on a necklace, the royal seals grew bigger and bigger under the House of Capet to reach around 12 centimetres. These are the modern dimensions of the seal.
All the seals under the Ancien Régime featured the king sitting on this throne and giving justice, yet every king had his own personal seal, a unique item which passed with him. All edicts, orders, decrees and declarations were then sealed.
After the abolition of Monarchy and installation of the Republic on the 21 September 1792, the end of monarchy was symbolised by the seals of the State being broken and sent to the Monnaie (the place where seals and coins are made and stored). In September 1792, Danton (then minister of Justice) had the first seal of the Republic made: a personification of Liberty standing, supported by a fasces and holding a spear with a phrygian cap.
Under the Second Republic, usage of the Great Seal of France tended to be reduced to sealing laws, decrees of the National Assembly and diplomatic treaties. The function of Keeper of the seals was officially linked to that of Minister of Justice at that time (the French Minister of Justice is popularly referred to "Le Garde des Sceaux").
After the Second Empire, the practice of applying seals to laws was gradually abandoned and restricted to constitutional acts and diplomatic treaties (for instance, the Treaty of Versailles was sealed in this way).
Under the Fourth Republic, the only document to be sealed was the Constitution of the 27 October 1946.
Since the Fifth Republic, after sealing the Constitution of the 4 October 1958, it became common practice to seal some constitutional modifications. Used in 1946, and twice at the beginning of the Fifth Republic, the sealing ceremonies became much less common from 1963 to 1991 period when only two laws - ordinary, but of great symbolic importance - were sealed. Since 1992, the pace of ceremonies has increased again: the constitutional changes since then were often the subject of a seal.
The date of the ceremony was very close to the date of passage of the law until 1964. It was subsequently clearly separated from the vote and publication of the text. An extreme case consists in the Constitutional Law nr. 99-569 of July 8, 1999 on equality between women and men, sealed March 8, 2002, two and a half years after the entry into force of the law.
Sealing ceremonies are always held at the Chancellerie where the Keeper of the Seals, the Minister of Justice, holds a sealing press affixed to a best and the unique matrices of the Seal of the State.
Nowadays, a liquid wax is fed directly into the inferior part of a shape made of a stamp and a mobile metallic ring; the shape is closed and the wax cools down until it becomes pasty before it is applied.
Usage of the Great Seal having become obsolete between 1920 and 1946, the recipe for the wax was lost. In 1946, trials had to be made by the Sigillographic service of the National Archives.
The Ancien Régime used a green wax for important documents, and a yellow for less important ones.
The Constitution of 1946 has taken back the red colour. The Constitution of 1958 and subsequent documents were sealed with yellow wax, until 2002 when the color turned to be green again.
The Empire sealed on wide yellow and blue silk ribbons; the Republic and the Consulate, on a tricolour braid.
Bourgin (Georges), Introduction à l’état sommaire des versements faits aux archives nationales par les ministères et les administrations qui en dépendent (série BB Justice), t. IV, lxxxxiii pages, Paris, Didier, 1947.
Les constitutions de la France, 1791-1992. Exposition réalisée par le Ministère de la Justice et l’association « Expo 200 », Paris, 6 novembre-31 décembre 1992.
Durand-Barthez (Pascal), Histoire des structures du Ministère de la Justice, 1789-1945, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1973, 92 p. : 35-36.
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Guillaume (Marc), "Le Sceau de France, titre nobiliaire et changement de nom", paper delivered at the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, www.asmp.fr.
Monnerie (Michel), "Sceller avec le grand Sceau de l’État. Mode d’emploi", Histoire de la Justice, 7, 1994, p. 199-207.
Nave (Guilhem), Les textes constitutionnels de 1791 à 1995. Analyse technique des documents, Unpublished report, October 1996, 27 p. [to be consulted at the French Archives nationales].
Nielen-Vandevoorde (Marie-Adélaïde), "Le sceau de la 5e République", Revue de l’AMOPA, 161, July 2003, p. 27 à 29.
Rouvier (Louis), Les Sceaux de la Grande Chancellerie de France de 458 à nos jours, Marseille, imprimerie de la société du Petit Marseillais, 1935, 94 p. : 83-84. [About the great and the little seals of the third Republic].
Rouvier (Louis), La Chancellerie et les Sceaux de France, Marseille, Imprimerie marseillaise-Moullot, 1950, 181 p. : p. 87-89.
Vallet (J.), "Le Sceau de France", La Vie judiciaire, August, 14-20 1977, p. 5.
Yvorel (Jean-Jacques), " 'Déritualisation' et désacralisation de l’audience du sceau (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles)", Le sanglot judiciaire, la désacralisation de la justice, VIIIe-XXe siècles, Séminaire de Royaumont sous la direction de Frédéric Chauvaud, Créaphis, 1999, p. 209-224.