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France: Warning flags on beaches

Last modified: 2021-06-26 by ivan sache
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Beach watching system

Order No. 86-204 sent on 19 June 1986 to the préfets of all French departments is dedicated to the watch of beaches and bathing places with free access (Surveillance de plages et lieux de baignade d'accès non payant). The text lists the legal framework of watch, the preventive measures and the organization of assistance.
The Order states that the flags to be hoisted on beaches are prescribed by Decree No. 62-13 of 8 January 1962 on means of signalling used on beaches and bathing places (relatif au matériel de signalisation utilisé sur les plages et lieux de baignades), published in Journal Officiel on 12 January 1962. The Order indeed repeats Article 1 of the Decree, whose Article 2 lists the Ministers in charge of the implementation of the Decree.

The Order mentions that the watch of bathing places is the responsibility of the Mayor, or of the Prefet only in case of severe failure (for instance in the case of a generalized pollution of water, which cannot be handled at the municipal level).
Section II (Prevention) 22 (Organization of watch) 222 (Area signalling and materialization of bathing places - marking) C (Means of signalling) says:

The means of signalling used on the beaches and bathing places, located on the seashore or elsewhere shall be made of:
1. One or more signal masts, placed in a conspicuous position, of white colour, of a height depending on the area of the beach or the bathing place, but not smaller than 10 m;
2. Signals to be hoisted on the mast, that is:
a) a bright red flag, shaped as an isosceles triangle (base: 1.50 m; height : 2.25 m); this signal hoisted on the top of the mast meaning "bathing forbidden";
b) a yellow orange flag of same shape and size; this signal hoisted on the top of the mast meaning "bathing dangerous but watched";
c) a green flag of the same shape and size; this signal hoisted on the top of the mast meaning "bathing watched, no particular danger".
These flags shall not be charged with any symbol or writing;
When no flag is hoisted on the top of the mast, people bath at their own risk. This condition shall be written on the panels described in 3, below.
The signal mast shall not bear any other emblem than those described above.
3. Panels with illustrations describing very clearly the meaning of the signals described above as well as the location of the means of assistance and the assistance post; the panels shall be applied on the signal mast at a height of 1.60 m and in other places of the beach or bathing place.
It can also be advised to translate these instructions into foreign languages.

The circulaire mentions only the three "classical" red, orange and green flags. If we read the text literally, hoisting the other signals on the signal mast is illegal. I guess that the complete series of signals was designed more recently and there are probably recent circulaires updating that one.
All bathing places with free access are concerned, and there are indeed signal masts and assistance posts in the lakes and ponds, even the smallest ones.
The flags are shown in several sources, for instance the guides released by the tourist offices. The source for the information given below is the guide released by the tourist office of Trouville (2003). An additional source, especially for the surf and windsurf flags, is the website of the sea resort of Mimizan.

Ivan Sache, 14 February 2007

Bathing forbidden

[Red beach flag]

Red flag: Bathing is strictly prohibited and not watched - Image by Ivan Sache, 7 December 2005

Bathing dangerous but watched

[Orange beach flag]         [Yellow beach flag]

Orange flag, as prescribed; yellow flag, as used near the Spanish border: Bathing is allowed and watched, but hazardous - Images by Ivan Sache, 7 December 2005

The flag for "bathing dangerous but watched" is prescribed to be orange, and is so on most French beaches. However, it is replaced by a yellow flag on beaches of the Atlantic coast between Bordeaux and the border with Spain. The occurrences of the yellow flag seem to be clustered on a specific part of the coast.
I have seen myself a yellow flag hoisted in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The shield explaining the meaning of the flags also showed a yellow flag. The websites of Biarritz and Lège-Cap-Ferret also show a yellow flag, whereas all the other websites I have found (La Rochelle, Etretat and Six-Fours) show an orange flag, which I have also spotted myself on a couple of beaches, for instance in Provence and Brittany. Moerover, the company Akoah, supplier of watersports stuff, sells a set of three red, yellow and green beach flags.
The red-yellow-green flag system matches the Spanish system, and its use near the border might not be coincidental.

Ivan Sache, 14 February 2007

Changing from orange to yellow may be a trend to match the most widespread system worldwide, and the rationale for it seems to be that orange is too "close" to red, while yellow is "equidistant" from both green and red thus miminizing confusion.

António Martins, 14 February 2007

Bathing watched, no particular danger

[Green beach flag]

Green flag: Bathing is allowed, safe and watched - Image by Ivan Sache, 7 December 2005

Pollution flag

[Yellow beach flag]         [Violet beach flag]

Yellow (formerly violet) flag: Bathing is inadvisable because of pollution (including of biotic origin, for instance presence of medusa) - Images by Ivan Sache, 7 December 2005

There is some confusion on the use of the yellow pennant. "Officially", the yellow pennant superseded the violet pennant to signal that swimming is not allowed because of pollution; however, the yellow pennant is used as a signal of "danger but swimming allowed" on the beaches of the south-west of France.
In June 2007, there was a bacteriologic pollution event in Marseilles. Accordingly, two popular beaches - Pointe Rouge and Catalans - were closed to swimming. And the signal used was ... the violet pennant, as reported on a local Internet channel.
So the yellow flag has not superseded the yellow flag yet in Marseilles. From my personal sightings, the danger flag used in Marseilles and the neighbouring sea resorts is the official orange flag.

Ivan Sache, 12 August 2007

Limits of the watched area

[Blue beach flag]

Blue flag:: Limits of the watched area - Image by Ivan Sache, 7 December 2005

Wind danger flag

[Red and white beach flag] [Black beach flag]

Red-white striped flag, most commonly used; Black flag, used in Var: Bathing and use of floating devices hazardous because of land breeze - Images by Ivan Sache, 18 February 2007

The beach flag for wind danger is usually a red and white striped flag. However, the municipalities of the department of Var use a plain black triangular flag, according to the Qualimer website.

Ivan Sache, 18 February 2007

Surf flag

Green and red flag]         Blue and yellow flag]

Surf flags - Images by Ivan Sache, 19 February 2007
Green flag with a red disk: Limits of surf area
Blue flag with a yellow disk:Limits of beginners' practice areas

The Regulations issued by the Surf French Federation recall the meaning of the beach waring flags; the chapter on the zoning of the sectors where surf is practiced recognize that a common recommendation satisfying both the surfers and the swimmers is not easy to propose. The triangular green flag with a red disk in the middle shall be mandatory for the surf schools. The Federation further recommends to limit the zones for beginners' practice with triangular blue flags with a yellow disk.

Ivan Sache, 19 February 2007

Windsurf danger flag

[Windsurfing flag]

Windsurf danger flag - Image by Ivan Sache, 23 January 2004

A black and white diagonally divided flag means that, according to the weather conditions, the wind direction and/or the sea conditions, windsurfing might be locally and temporarily dangerous, but is not prohibited. It is the windsurfer's duty to decide, according to his/her personal skills and the quality of his/her equipment, if s/he can go windsurfing in spite of a signalled hazard.

Ivan Sache, 23 January 2004