white, a universal color

Yes, white is a color. And an important one. It represents more universal values, at the risk of being abandoned due to lack of representation.

By Romain Philips, for the series “Codes and colors of politics”.

Across times, cultures and countries, white is linked to extremely strong and, above all, universal symbols. Life, death, peace, innocence or purity … If we take a look at our history, the examples are many. The white dove is a sign of peace, it is said in French that a man declared innocent is “whitened”, a person who has nothing to reproach himself for is “white as snow”, the Egyptians wrapped their dead in a white shroud, Wearing white clothes at funerals is traditional in several Asian countries …

“If we delve into our collective memory and imagination, we realize that white has always been associated with very strong universal symbols in European, African and Asian societies: purity, peace and innocence,” explained Michel Pastoureau, historian specialized in the symbolism of colors, during a conference in Lausanne.

All over the world, white is exceptional because it represents the strongest values ​​compared to other colors. The white flag is a globally recognized symbol of this. A sign of such power that just by shaking this color lives are saved, peace negotiations are started, assassinations are stopped … And this, all over the planet.

A Palestinian woman raises a white flag as an Israeli armored vehicle heads toward her home in the southern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2004. AFP – SAID KHATIB

As proof of its universality, the use of the white flag was established in the Hague Convention relative to the laws and customs of land warfare in 1899. “The person authorized by one of the belligerents to enter into negotiations with the other and who If she presents herself with the white flag, she will be considered as a member of parliament. She has the right to inviolability, “says the text. What can be more political than a text that governs the way of waging war?

A symbol of kings

But in some countries, the symbolism is different. In France, in particular, the color white takes on a much more political aspect when used by the Kingdom of France to represent the monarchy.

“The political target appeared during the wars of religion. It was the union sign of Protestants against Catholics. In an age when troops did not have uniforms, Protestants recognized each other by their white bands. It was also the distinctive sign Protestant leaders. The band and then the white flag became the symbols of the Kingdom of France “, says Paul Chopelin, professor of modern history at the University Lyon 3.

Color is also found in Russia in the 20th century with the “white army”, a coalition formed after the 1917 revolution, fighting against the new Soviet power. The Afghan Taliban also targeted their flag in 1996-1997, inherited from the Umayyad dynasty.

Victim of its universality

Is the target a victim of his own success? In a world where the political offering has never been so varied, is the color white too universal to represent a political family? In any case, nobody wears it. Gandhi was the exception, wearing a white dhoti. A color that symbolizes the values ​​of this apostle of peace and pacifism, whose day of death is considered the “International Day of Non-Violence”.

Does this mean that this color has no place in the political world? No way. With its symbols linked to life and peace, it cannot be dissociated from the other political colors that make up our societies. Therefore, it is found on many occasions. On October 20, 1996, more than 350,000 people dressed all in white gathered in Brussels (Belgium) in a “white march” to pay tribute to the victims of pedophilia and to protest against the deficiencies of the state services in charge of the investigation. of the Dutroux case.

Aerial view of the first 'white march', in Brussels, in 1997.
Aerial view of the first ‘white march’, in Brussels, in 1997. AFP – CORR

The demonstration was intended to be politically neutral. In the end, the “white marches” are now a social fact that has spread throughout the world with a strong political charge. “This apolitical attitude is only superficial. Because behind the demonstration of support, or next to it, the white marches transmit, at least implicitly, this form of repressed anger or resentment”, writes Christian Godin in the article “The white march, a new fact of society “.

“The white marches also represent, in a totally conscious way this time, the indignation of civil society at the tragedies that reveal the supposed impotence of the public powers,” he adds about these marches “that reflect a desire for political neutrality.”

A color at the polls

During elections, the color white is present through the white vote. “The white vote is usually an expression of dissatisfaction with the political offer. It is the result of an often negative expression, the political expression of something”, explains Adélaïde Zulfikarpasic, director of the Opinion Department of the BVA Institute and author of the article “The white vote: civic abstention or political expression? “.

In some countries, the political power given to the white vote is such that elections can be annulled, as in Colombia or Peru. In other countries, such as Spain, Tunisia, Mauritania or Switzerland, it is counted and, therefore, it can contribute to increasing the threshold for a candidate to win.

In France, the white vote is recognized but not counted, although its importance increases with each election. “This increase in the number of blank votes, if we take into account that it is a vote that expresses discontent, is a reflection of discontent with politics in France,” adds Adélaïde Zulfikarpasic. It provides a political option for those who cannot find it.

Everywhere, all the time, white is ubiquitous. Nature does its job well, and it is not for nothing that white is a set of all colors.


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