May 18, 2021

France and Mexico: two stories that come together

A look back at an eventful history that is better known in Mexico than in France. To know in order to avoid any mistake with your Mexican interlocutors.

France and Mexico: two stories that come together

A little-known common history

When confronted with professional or personal relations from other European countries, the French generally have a fairly good idea of their common history with England and Germany, of course, as well as the two world wars of the last century. Many also have some idea of the complex history of the formation of France, through constant conflicts with Spain, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Russia or even Sweden or Norway (Napoleonic wars), etc.

On the other hand, when faced with countries from other continents, we are often tempted to believe that the relationship is distant or that the common history is non-existent. Of course, I am excluding the former colonies of France or even Canada. But as far as Latin America is concerned, it is well known that it is a "preserve" of Spain and Portugal!

However, Mexico, even if it has had little to do with France as part of New Spain since the "conquista" in the 14th century until its official creation as an independent country in 1821, is a country that had a lot to do with France in the 19th century!

The emperor of Mexico imposed by Napoleon III

Indeed, if the French are often unaware of it (as far as I'm concerned, it was a taxi driver in Mexico City who first told me about it), Mexicans know very well that two wars opposed our countries during the 19th century.  And it is better to remember this if you want to avoid making mistakes or even appearing ignorant! What would a British citizen say if a Frenchman confessed to him that he had no idea where the name of Waterloo station came from?

Well, he would be as astonished as a Mexican to whom a Frenchman would say that he did not know the origin of the 5th of May celebration: the "batalla de Puebla", during which, on the 5th of May 1862, the Mexican inhabitants and soldiers victoriously repelled a French expeditionary corps that was heading towards the capital Mexico City from the port of Veracruz. The purpose of the landing was to intervene in Mexican domestic politics, against the background of Mexico's unpaid debts to major European countries.

This (unofficial) May 5 holiday is in fact the part still visible to all of us of a large "historical iceberg" which is the 5-year reign of Maximilian of Habsburg (brother of the Austrian emperor ... and in whom a persistent rumour saw the son of the Duke of Reichstadt, i. e. "Napoleon II"), as Emperor of Mexico, imposed by Napoleon III through a political vacuum in Mexico, and maintained during this period with the help of French armed forces!

Without going into the full history of this episode, which ended with the death of Emperor Maximilian, who was dropped by the French troops after 5 years and overthrown by the Mexicans, we can see that this is not just a simple historical vague seen from Mexico, even if many French people have never heard of it. One event that has been preserved in French (military) memory is the battle of Cameron (Camarón in Spanish), during which a small group of a few dozen soldiers of the Foreign Legion resisted an encirclement of a thousand Mexican soldiers for a whole day. This episode is now part of the traditions of the French Foreign Legion and is still celebrated today within the Mexican army.

However, this episode of Mexican history, certainly the most significant in the collective memory of this country, is not the only one that opposed France. It is in fact the second in the historical fresco!

The pastry war

Indeed, another military event took place between 1838 and 1839: the 'War of the Pastries' ('guerra de los pasteles' or, in school books, 'Primera Intervención Francesa en México', which is significant).

The 1830s saw a period of instability in the young Mexican republic, as well as anti-French feelings towards emigrants settled in Mexico, some of whom had important commercial interests.

These emigrants, most of whom were merchants, were victims (as were others) of the disorder of the time: riots and looting by populations left behind, including a famous pastry chef in Mexico City by the name of Remontel, who was looted in 1833, and who remained the symbol of the demands of the French and of the war to come. Other purely anti-French events were reported during the period, including murders in various towns across the country.

Having unsuccessfully sought protection and compensation from the Mexican government, the French in Mexico turned to their country and its diplomacy for redress. After numerous French requests were rejected by the Mexicans, King Louis-Philippe decided in 1838 to send a squadron to blockade Mexican ports along the entire Atlantic coast, including the port of Veracruz. After various military and diplomatic twists and turns, Mexico agreed to pay, France withdrew its troops...and the payment never took place. This non-payment was one of the causes of the next war mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Topics to know, discussions to avoid

It is clear that these events are not meant to fill lunches and conversations with the French business partners in Mexico, they should probably even be avoided as much as possible like other frictional subjects such as the Florence Cassez case (more than 10 years ago but brought back to the forefront in April 2021 by President AMLO himself...). However, knowing them allows one to show that one knows one's own history and to avoid blunders, notably around the May 5th holiday, both professionally and in one's private life as an expatriate!

In fact, when we lived in Mexico, my own children found themselves with their school friends in the schoolyard for the Salute to the Flag and the national anthem on the occasion of May this case it is better to know what it is!

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