The Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860 lowered or eliminated duties levied on goods traded between Britain and France, and signaled a victory for liberal economic policies. Named for its two primary negotiators, British Richard Cobden (1804–1865) and French Michel Chevalier (1806–1879), the treaty inaugurated a period of relatively free trade among many European nations that lasted until the early 1890s. The treaty continued Britain's move toward lowered tariffs that had begun in the 1820s, notably through the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws. In France, the treaty marked a clear departure from protectionism, shaped industrialization, and sharpened political opposition to Napoleon III, emperor of France.
Well before 1860, both Cobden and Chevalier had acquired reputations as advocates for free trade and held influential positions within their respective governments. Cobden, a member of Parliament (MP) who made his fortune in Manchester textiles, won international acclaim as a radical campaigner for free trade through his success with the Anti–Corn Law Association in the 1840s. As a young man, Chevalier adopted the Saint-Simonian principles that the state's economic policies should promote the material and moral elevation of the masses. Chevalier taught in the Colle'ge de France before his appointment to the Council of State as an economic advisor to Napoleon III in 1852.
During the 1850s, Napoleon III worked to create political stability through prosperity. He and Chevalier agreed that the state should encourage industrial modernization and improved transportation in order to increase productivity and make more goods and services accessible to more people. They believed that free trade would further these goals. Businessmen in wine, railroads, ports, and steamships favored lower duties. However, French textile manufacturers, cereal growers, and mining companies supported protectionism, and the Legislative Corps repeatedly blocked attempts to lower tariffs. Chevalier awaited an opportunity to use a treaty to accomplish his goals, because the empire did not require the Legislative Corps to approve treaties.
The right moment arose in July 1859, when tensions between Britain and France increased due to France's interventions in Italy. The British MP John Bright called on Britain to lower its tariffs in order to improve its relationship with France. Chevalier took this opportunity to contact Cobden in the hope of coming to a free trade agreement. Beginning in October 1859, the two nations, led by Cobden and Chevalier, entered into negotiations. The treaty stating the principle of lowered tariffs and setting maximum values at 30 percent was signed on 23 January 1860. The British Parliament approved the treaty in March, in large part due to the support of Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone.
Conventions signed in the fall of 1860 through negotiations between French Minister of Commerce Euge'ne Rouher and Cobden set the new tariffs. Britain eliminated most duties on articles de Paris (toys, haberdashery, imitation jewelry), silk, wine, and spirits. The French could maintain a maximum of 30 percent duties on some goods, but many were taxed as low as 10 percent. Any tariff decreases that France or Britain offered to a third nation would be extended to each other. Treaties lowering trade barriers among most major European nations, excluding Russia, soon followed.
Cobden and Chevalier viewed the treaty not as an end to itself, but as the first step in improved Franco-British relations. However, some British politicians believed the French used the treaty as a distraction from their Italian policies, and that the treaty would leave the British handicapped in case of war. The two nations soon became involved in a naval arms race.
The treaty's influence on French industrial modernization is difficult to measure amid other factors, including the development of domestic markets and the cotton shortage during the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), but most scholars agree that the treaty speeded technological and structural change in France. French users of charcoal forges, forest owners, and textile manufacturers suffered from the influx of British coal and textiles, but some modernized using low-interest loans offered by the government. The treaty did not significantly affect British industry.
In France, the political consequences proved significant. Protectionists, led by politician Adolphe Thiers, felt that Napoleon III had betrayed their interests and their trust by secretly negotiating a treaty that might cripple their industries. They pressured the emperor to make liberal political concessions.
The tariff remained in effect until 1882, when Britain and France could agree only to mutually maintain most-favored-nation status. Once France's treaties with other nations lapsed in 1892, protectionists led by Jules Méline raised duties, although never to the prohibitive level in effect before the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty.
See alsoCobden, Richard; Corn Laws, Repeal of; Liberalism; Trade and Economic Growth.
Dunham, Arthur Louis. The Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860 and the Progress of the Industrial Revolution in France. Reprint, New York, 1971.
Edsall, Nicholas C. Richard Cobden: Independent Radical. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.
Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power. New York, 2001.