French-Latin American Relations

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French-Latin American Relations

France became involved in the discovery, conquest, and colonization of Latin America as early as 1504, when its ships began to prowl the coasts of Brazil looking for dyewoods to trade. France did not view itself as bound by the Treaty of Tordesillas, for as King François I remarked, "I should very much like to see the passage in Adam's will that divides the New World between my brothers, the Emperor Charles V and the King of Portugal." Although from 1532 to 1550 the Portuguese drove the French from their outposts in northern Brazil, in 1555 a French expedition founded a Huguenot colony, France d'Antarctique, on an island in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, that lasted until 1566–1567. In 1594 another French mission established a settlement, this time in the Bay of Maranhão (São Marcos Bay) that was destroyed in 1614–1615.

In 1624 merchants from Rouen established a trading post on the coasts of Tierra Firme known as Guiana. Other Frenchmen followed and in 1643 founded Cayenne, today the capital of French Guiana. Cayenne was occupied by the Dutch in 1664 but awarded to France by the Treaty of Breda (1667), which gave France a legal presence it had never obtained in Brazil. The Dutch were driven out in 1676, and the area around Cayenne has remained under French control ever since. From 1624 to the present, settlement in French Guiana has centered around Cayenne and adjacent coastlands. Agriculture and forest products have anchored the economy for 300 years. The inhabitants, mostly creoles of African and European descent, have been citizens of France since 1877, and French Guiana has been a département of France since 1946. From 1852 to 1939 it was a penal colony and received 70,000 convicts at Devil's Island and other points. Since 1968 French Guiana has hosted the rocket-launching program of the European Space Agency. The population of about 100,000 (1992) remains highly dependent on France.

Although the French pirate François Le Clerc destroyed Yaguana, the forerunner to Port-au-prince, in 1553, it was not until the seventeenth century that the French would become active in the Caribbean. In 1635 Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc conquered the island of Martinique for France, while Jean du Plessis did the same for Guadeloupe during that year. Martinique became a great sugar producer and France assumed sovereignty over the island in 1674. Many important contributors to French and international culture were born there, including the Empress Josephine and the revolutionary theoretician Frantz Fanon. In 1946 both Martinique and Guadeloupe became overseas départements of France. Jacques Jean David Nau, known as L'Ollonais from his French birthplace, grew up in the Caribbean and became a buccaneer on the island of Tortuga, terrorizing the Spaniards with his atrocities, including the sack of Maracaibo (1667), from 1653 until 1671.

In 1641 other buccaneers established themselves on the northwestern shores of Hispaniola. In 1664 Louis XIV claimed settlements there for France and gave control over them to the French West India Company, a title that was sustained by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. French settlers founded Port-au-Prince in 1749. The Treaty of Aranjuez (1777) determined the boundary between that territory, known as Saint Domingue, and the Spanish part known as Santo Domingo. On 14 August 1791, the slaves in Saint Domingue revolted, and three years later they murdered 800 white planters, prompting many to flee to other French islands. In 1800 the leader of the revolt, Toussaint Louverture, took control over Saint Domingue, which the following year promulgated its first constitution. Although the French tried to recapture their part of the island with twenty thousand troops in 1802, the nation of Haiti proclaimed itself independent in 1804 and was recognized as such by France in 1825.

French activity sparked Spanish exploration in many parts of the present-day continental United States. For example, Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés defeated the French settlement at Fort Caroline prior to establishing Saint Augustine in 1565. French explorations of the Midwest under Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673 and Chevalier Robert La Salle in 1685–1687 halted Spanish incursions into the area. The French gave possession of Louisiana to Spain in late 1762, but in 1800 Napoleon I demanded that the territory be returned. In 1803 it was sold to the United States as the Louisiana Purchase.

French military technology and practice had a decided impact on the Spanish American officers who fought the wars of independence, including Simón Bolívar. The copying of French uniforms in the nineteenth century was such that when Argentine intellectual and politician Domingo Fausto Sarmiento joined Justo José de Urquiza's troops to oust Juan Manuel de Rosas from power, he was attired as a French officer. French immigrants came to northern Argentina after independence and by the 1830s had set up sugar refineries, known as ingenios, while others went to central Argentina, especially Buenos Aires province. French merchants were active in Mexico, Chile, and Peru during the nineteenth century. In Central America the French economic impact was weaker, but schools run by French nuns and priests influenced politicians. During that period the French occasionally meddled in Latin American affairs, usually in Mexico where a series of inept ministers only worsened relations. In 1838 they bombarded Veracruz in hostilities dubbed the Pastry War because France was demanding reparations for damage to the shop of a French baker. During the same year they sought to extend their trade and power in the Río de la Plata area and to show their displeasure at the Rosas regime by organizing an ineffective blockade on Buenos Aires in the 1830s. However, the worst example of French interference in Latin American affairs came with the ill-fated "French Empire" in Mexico.

In late 1861 France, Britain, and Spain agreed to force Mexico to pay outstanding debts by blockading the port of Veracruz in December. Britain and Spain bowed out once they learned that the French intended to invade Mexico and establish an empire there. French forces suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Puebla (5 May 1862) but took Mexico City in June 1863. Hapsburg prince Ferdinand Maximilian, younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph, accompanied by his Belgian wife, Charlotte, arrived in Mexico in June 1864 and became Emperor and Empress Maximiliano and Carlota of Mexico. Maximilian was too liberal for his clerical supporters and became heavily dependent on French troops, which deserted him soon after the U.S. Civil War ended and French emperor Napoleon III faced a growing challenge across the Rhine from Otto von Bismarck's Prussia. Empress Carlota traveled to Europe in the summer of 1866, hoping to restore the commitment of Napoleon III and secure the intervention of the pope. These efforts failed (and cost Carlota her sanity), leaving Maximilian to be captured and executed on 19 June 1867. The invasion helped solidify the political dominance of the Liberals; consequently the Mexican government became generally stable until the 1910 Revolution.

The most enduring consequence of this French fiasco has been the term Latin America. French publicists coined the phrase in an effort to justify Napoleon's intervention by claiming a kinship among the peoples who spoke languages derived from Latin.

The Mexican adventure was the last major French enterprise in Latin America. Subsequently, French influence has been felt chiefly in the financial and cultural spheres. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, France has been among the major investors in Latin America. In 1900 France had $600 million invested in Latin America, twice as much as the United States but less than one-third of Britain's total. By 1970, French investment in Latin America totaled about $540 million, well below the U.S., British, and German figures. France continues to be economically important through the European Union. Trade doubled between the EU and Latin American countries between 1990 and 2002.

Even as the works of Latin American intellectuals and artists gave rise to national cultures, France played an important part in the evolution of Latin American culture. Enlightenment ideology and the example of the French Revolution helped spark the revolutions of 1808–1826; when King João VI wished to invite an artistic mission to visit Brazil in 1816, he sought a French one. Virtually every Latin American capital was remade in the late nineteenth century to look like Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's Paris, with its wide boulevards. In Argentina, French intellectual Paul Groussac was influential in improving education and enhancing the role of the National Library, of which he became the director. The impact of French socialist theories was felt in Latin America into the twentieth century, as were the works of Charles Maurras from the 1930s on fascism. Especially important is the respect accorded to existentialist works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus along with French cinema in the post-World War II era. Although its cultural prestige in Latin America has declined somewhat in the twentieth century, those countries with large European immigrant populations still regard Paris as the source of cultural trends and fashion.

See alsoEnlightenment, The; French Artistic Mission; French Guiana; Haiti; L'Olonnais, Francis; Louverture, Toussaint; Maracaibo; Martinique and Guadeloupe; Maximilian; Mexico: 1810–1910; Pastry War; Piracy; Puebla, Battle and Siege of; Santo Domingo; Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494); Veracruz (City).


For books from a French perspective, see Fernando Campos Harriet, Veleros franceses en el Mar del Sur, 1700–1800 (1964); W. Adolphe Roberts, The French in the West Indies (1971); Carl Ludwig Lokke, France and the Colonial Question: A Study of Contemporary French Opinion, 1763–1801 (1976). For a more Latin American focus, see Pierre Chaunu, L'Amérique et les Amériques (1964); Alfred Jackson Hanna and Kathryn Abbey Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico: American Triumph over Monarchy (1971); Yuyu Guzmán, Estancias de Azul y pobladores franceses en la zona rural de Azul (1976); and Angel Sanz Tapia, Los militares emigrados y los prisioneros franceses en Venezuela durante la guerra contra la revolución: Un aspecto fundamental de la época de la preemancipa-ción (1977); Nancy Nichols Barker, The French Experience in Mexico, 1821–1861: A History of Constant Misunderstanding (1979).

Additional Bibliography

Bohdziewicz, Jorge C. Rosas y Lefebvre de Bécourt: Actuación del encargado de negocios de Francia en el Río de la Plata, 1840–1842. Buenos Aires: Scholastica, 2003.

Cunningham, Michele. Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K., and New York: Palgrave, 2001.

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

Pelosi, Hebe Carmen. Vichy no fue Francia: Las relaciones franco-argentinas (1939–1946). Buenos Aires: Nuevohacer Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 2003.

Schoonover, Thomas David. The French in Central America Culture and Commerce, 1820–1930. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

                                        John McNeill