Rank insignia in the French army are worn on the sleeve or on shoulder marks of uniforms, and range up to the highest rank of Marshal of France, a state honour denoted with a seven-star insignia that was last conferred posthumously on Marie Pierre Koenig in 1984.
Rank insignia in the French army depend on whether the soldier belongs to an infantry or cavalry unit. The infantry arms (armes à pied) include normal infantry, naval troops, the Foreign Legion and engineers; cavalry arms (armes à cheval) include armoured cavalry, artillery, maintenance and logistics. Sleeves are emblazoned with marks denoting either gold insignia for the infantry or silver/white for the cavalry. However, the artillery uses gold as the main colour, despite being a cavalry branch, and spahis use gold as the main colour despite being part of the cavalry, a distinction representing the armoured cavalry.
Insignia of a marshal of France
The title of "marshal of France" (maréchal de France) is awarded as a distinction, rather than a rank. The marshals wear seven stars and carry a baton.
Philippe Pétain, who became famous as Maréchal Pétain, chief of state of the Vichy France regime, retained his title even after his trial and imprisonment and after he was stripped of other positions and titles.
Général de brigade ("brigade general", i.e. Brigadier general); in command of a brigade, or of a région in the Gendarmerie. A famous général de brigade was Charles de Gaulle, who often wore military uniform whilst being President of the French Republic.
There is no distinction between infantry and cavalry generals, since they are all supposed to be able to command any type of unit.
Officiers supérieurs - senior officers
In the below descriptions, "horse-mounted" does not refer to current units (the only remaining horse-mounted unit is a ceremonial unit in the Republican Guard) but to the traditional affiliation of the units.
The word colonel originates in the medieval term capitaine colonel, "the head (officer) of a column" (=regiment). Lieutenant-colonel is the one who can "hold the place" of a colonel in his absence (lieu-tenant, from tenir lieu which means to hold the place). The word chef or "chief" in English comes from the Latin word caput meaning "head".
A colonel commands a regiment of the army or a groupement of the Gendarmerie. During the French Revolution, they were called chef de brigade. Cavalry arms wear silver. The origin of the difference in metal colour is that infantry officers once wore silver epaulettes, while those of the cavalry and other arms wore gold, and the colour of the rank badge had to differ from these metals in each case.
The lieutenant-colonel has the same responsibilities as a colonel. They were called major during the First French Empire. Notice that the metal colours alternate silver and gold in each case, as opposed to those of the colonels. This characteristic goes back at least to alternating stripes on the uniforms of that empire in epaulettes.
Commandant (also called chef de bataillon in the infantry, chef d'escadrons in the cavalry and chef d'escadron in the artillery and in the army light aviation) is equivalent to a major in English-speaking countries.
Officiers subalternes - junior officers
A capitaine is in command of a company (compagnie) of infantry, a squadron (escadron) of cavalry or a battery (batterie) of artillery.
Aspirant An Officer Designate rank, it is used in the Armée de Terre (Army), the Armée de l'Air (Air Force), the Marine Nationale (Navy) and the Gendarmerie Nationale. Technically it is not a commissioned rank but it is still treated in all respects as one. Aspirants are either officers in training in military academies or voluntaries, serving as temporary officers. The aspirant must have been previously élève officier (Officer Cadet). S/He can afterwards be commissioned as a sous-lieutenant or enseigne de vaisseau de deuxième classe. The insignia is a single curl of gold lace, disrupted by "flashes" of wool. It was widely used during both World Wars for providing young educated people with an officer's authority.
Sous-officiers - sub-officers, i.e. non-commissioned officers
Major, the senior sub-officer rank, is derived from the old abolished rank of maréchal des logis-major (English: "chief quartermaster"). Much like the no longer existing German army rank of Feldwebel-Leutnant (English: "sergeant-lieutenant"), the major was a staff warrant officer in charge of book-keeping and paperwork. Since 1 January 2009 this grade is attached to the sous-officiers. Prior to this date it was an independent corps between the sous-officiers and the officiers. There are relatively few majors in the army, about one per regiment or brigade. As they could hold equivalent administrative tasks as officiers they are more common in the Armée de l'Air.
Note the difference with many army rank systems of other countries where the term major is used for a rank above that of captain. For example, the rank of "major" in the US Army or British army is equivalent to the rank of "commandant" in the French army.
Adjudant-chef: "Chief adjutant"; often same responsibilities as the lieutenant.
adjudant-chef (infantry arms)
adjudant-chef (cavalry and transportation arms)
Adjudant: Adjutant; often same responsibilities as an adjutant-chef.
Sergent-chef (infantry) or maréchal des logis-chef (cavalry), addressed as "chef". Typically a platoon second-in-command (equivalent to a Commonwealth sergeant or a US sergeant first class).
Sergent-chef: Chief sergeant
Maréchal des logis-chef: Chief marshal of lodgings
Sergent (infantry) or maréchal-des-logis (cavalry): Typically in command of a "group" (i.e. squad; equivalent to a commonwealth corporal or US staff sergeant)
Etymologically the adjudant is the adjoint ("joint (assistant)") of an officer, and the sergeant "serves" (Latin: serviens = English: servant).
Aspirants are cadet officers still in training. Sous-lieutenants are junior officers and are often aided by adjudants or adjudants-chefs, who are experienced NCOs/warrant officers.
Full lieutenants are experienced junior officers, served by sergeants when commanding their unit.
A four chevron sergent-chef-major rank existed until 1947. It was a ceremonial rank usually given to the most senior or experienced NCO in a unit, similar to a colour sergeant in the British Army. It was discontinued in the post-war army due to its redundancy.
Militaires du rang - Troop ranks
Junior enlisted grades have different cloth stripe and beret colour depending on the service they are assigned to. Troupes métropolitaines ("from the French mainland") units wear blue, Troupes de marine (the former troupes coloniales) wear red, and the Légion Étrangere (Foreign Legion) units wear green.
P.S.: A red beret indicates a paratrooper, whether from the "troupes de marine" or not. A legionnaire paratrooper wears a green beret with the general parachutist badge on it, the same badge used by all French Army paratroopers who completed their training.
Senior grades' lace stripe metal depends on their arm of service, just like the officiers. Infantry and support units wear gold stripes and cavalry and technical services units wear silver stripes.
Caporal-chef de première classe. Distinction created in 1999.
Caporal-chef (infantry) or Brigadier-chef (cavalry): in command of an équipe (literally a team). Presently this size unit is a trinôme in the army.
Caporal (infantry) or brigadier (cavalry) : in command of an équipe.
Soldat de première classe. This is a distinction rather than a rank.
Soldat de deuxième classe: No rank insignia. Depending on the arm, they are called
Marsouin (literally "porpoise"; marines or naval infantry)
Bigor (artillerie de la marine; see Troupes de marine): A term either from the gunner's order to fire (Bigue de hors) or a term for a species of winkle (bigorneau) because they would stick to their emplacements and couldn't be removed easily.
Poilu (infanterie): "Hairy one". A term that appeared during the First Empire and used to refer to the French soldiers as they often wore a beard and/or a moustache—and were represented that way on memorials. Nowadays, this term is used to refer to French soldiers who fought in the trenches of WW1, though it is seldom used to refer to WW2 soldiers. It is synonym of bravery and endurance.
Biffin slang used by troupes de marine and fusiliers marins to designate other infantry units. Probably comes from the fact that marsouins and naval riflemen used to own their uniform and were proud of it, whereas other units were dressed in rags (biffe is an old French word for rag). This word is not used to designate a legionnaire.
There are also distinctions to distinguish volunteers and conscripts, and bars for experience (one for five years, up to four can be obtained).
Engineer officer ranks
Ingénieur général de première classe (equivalent to général de division)
Ingénieur général de deuxième classe (equivalent to général de brigade)
Ingénieur en chef de première classe (equivalent to colonel)
Ingénieur en chef de deuxième classe (equivalent to lieutenant-colonel)
Ingénieur principal (equivalent to commandant)
Ingénieur de première classe (equivalent to capitaine)
Ingénieur de deuxième classe (equivalent to lieutenant)
Ingénieur de troisième classe (equivalent to sub-lieutenant)
Army Commissariat Service officer ranks
These ranks apply the word commissaire in light of their participation and role in the Commissariat Service of the army.
Commissaire général de corps d'armée (equivalent to Général de groupe d'armees)
Commissaire général de division (equivalent to général de division)
Commissaire général de brigade (equivalent to général de brigade)
Commissaire colonel (equivalent to colonel)
Commissaire lieutenant-colonel (equivalent to lieutenant-colonel)
Commissaire commandant (equivalent to commandant)
Commissaire capitaine (equivalent to capitaine)
Commissaire lieutenant (equivalent to lieutenant)
Commissaire sous-lieutenant (equivalent to sub-lieutenant)
Table of ranks
Maréchaux de France - Marshals of France
Maréchal de France
Marshal of France is not an actual rank, but a "state honour" for highly valorous generals in times of war