French Intervention (Mexico)

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French Intervention (Mexico)

French Intervention (Mexico), the protracted attempt from 1862 until 1867 by the Second Empire under Napoleon III to establish military supremacy in Mexico in order to maintain the Mexican Empire as a counterbalance to U.S. expansion. Napoleon III resuscitated earlier Bourbon aspirations to hegemony over Hispanic dominions and thereby gain access to bullion supplies. The intervention was not motivated by the demands of French industry or commerce, in spite of significant growth in the 1850s. In fact, it was unpopular in business circles. The French were, however, interested in the construction of an interoceanic canal across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had been interested in such schemes while a political prisoner at Ham in the early 1840s.

French diplomats and a handful of Mexican monarchists mooted the idea of a European monarchy as a solution to Mexico's post-Independence instability. Predominant mid-nineteenth-century racism encouraged the belief that Mexicans were incapable of governing themselves. Napoleon III adopted the idea already given some prominence in France that France as the senior "Latin" state should have a role in Latin American affairs. A "Latin" bloc in Europe and America could hold back the Slavs and Anglo-Saxons. Foreign monarchs had already ascended thrones in Belgium and Greece, and two American countries, Canada and Brazil, were constitutional monarchies. Napoleon III was not fully briefed on Mexican affairs and erroneously believed there to be significant support there for a monarchy. He was, however, careful not to alienate Great Britain, which had its own commercial interests in Latin America.

The intervention went far beyond the initial tripartite (Great Britain, France, Spain) debt-collecting mission of January 1862. The scheme had precise political objectives that corresponded to a specific phase in French foreign and colonial policy and should be viewed in the context of expansion in Algeria and Indochina. Marshal François Bazaine, a veteran of the Algerian campaigns, was the commander who led the French forces, which included Algerian and Egyptian soldiers.

The fortuitous occurrence of the American Civil War (1861–1865) enabled the intervention to take place without effective American challenge. Napoleon, however, mistakenly believed that the Confederate states would endure, thus allowing the extension of pro-French monarchies into Central and South America. But imperial Brazil showed little interest in Napoleon's plan, and the Juárez regime determined to resist the French to the end. Over-confidence caused the French disaster at Puebla on 5 May 1862, which delayed the capture of Mexico City until 10 June 1863.

In the meantime, Napoleon embarked upon the process of establishing a Mexican empire with the Hapsburg archduke Maximilian as emperor. The Fontainebleau Instructions of 3 July 1862 provided for both protection of the Catholic church and consolidation of Liberal disamortization policies (state policy of transferring ecclesiastical and Indian properties to private ownership, in accordance with the Ley Lerdo of 25 June 1856). Napoleon wanted a liberal empire legitimized by elections and supported by moderates. Conservatives and the Mexican hierarchy, however, had no sympathy for the liberalism of either French military commanders or Maximilian. General Élie-Frédéric Forey established the Assembly of Notables, which in July 1863 invited Maximilian to assume the throne.

When Bazaine replaced Forey as supreme commander in October 1863, there were 40,000 French troops in Mexico. Bazaine's coolness toward the Conservative regency established by Forey lasted until Maximilian's arrival in June 1864. Bazaine advised Napoleon of the difficulty of establishing a Mexican imperial army on European lines, but in the military campaign to hold down Mexico, Bazaine benefited from a unified command. The French formed a contre-guérilla unit to combat Juarista bands that were attacking supply lines in the Veracruz hinterland. Guanajuato fell on 8 December 1863, and Bazaine entered Guadalajara on 5 January 1864. The fall of Durango (4 July 1864), Saltillo (20 August), and Monterrey (26 August) were the high points of the campaign in the north. In October 1864 Juárez was forced into Chihuahua, where he remained until December without being forced out of the country. Liberal guerrilla bands operated behind French lines.

The growth of Prussian power on the European continent and the ending of the U.S. Civil War encouraged Napoleon to press for the evacuation of French forces, leaving only the Foreign Legion. This made the formation of a Mexican army urgent. The French army had always been relatively small as a result of domestic opposition to the Mexican "adventure." Maximilian refused to leave with the French. He had decided to commit himself to a last stand in order to try to save the empire. This decision threw him into the arms of the Mexican Conservatives, whom he had largely abandoned since June 1864. The urgent task of forming an imperial army was left to the Conservative generals Miguel Miramón, Tomás Mejía, and Leonardo Márquez. Bazaine departed with the last French troops. In eight weeks, 28,000 troops left Veracruz, one-tenth of the entire French army.

See alsoAfrancesado; French-Latin American Relations.


Jack Autrey Dabbs, The French Army in Mexico, 1861–1867 (1963).

Alfred J. and Kathryn A. Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarchy (1971).

Additional Bibliography

Cunningham, Michele. Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III. Houndmills; New York: Palgrave, 2001.

García Cantú, Gastón. La intervención francesa en México. México: Clío, 1998.

Meyer, Jean A. Yo, el francés: La intervención en primera persona: biografías y crónicas. México: Tusquets Editores, 2002.

                                          Brian Hamnett

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French Intervention (Mexico)

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