The popular story tells of a curious episode that occurred in the year 1838, in the Tacubaya neighborhood, then a neighboring town in Mexico City.
National army officers arrived at the pastry shop of a Frenchman named Remontel . Some chronicles say that the military looted the place. Others say that the uniformed men ate cakes and left without paying.
Whatever his actions, Remontel was the one who was left with empty hands and losses for the very considerable sum (by standards of the time) of 800 pesos .
But that local episode, of which historians point out that there is no clear evidence that it happened as it is popularly told, ended up baptizing years later a serious war conflict between Mexico and France.
The hostilities began on April 16, 1838 , when an ultimatum from France that demanded the high payment of 600,000 pesos by the Mexican government expired, as well as an advantageous commercial agreement.
” Very little is known about the pastry incident. There are stories that contradict each other, such as that he was really a pastry chef. Authors of the time refer to him as a fondista, that is, he has a fonda (restaurant) It is not clear,” the Mexican historian Raúl González Lezama explains to BBC Mundo.
“This reference is taken to magnify the absurdity and unfairness of the situation. How France takes a rather banal issue to make a claim of large magnitudes . First for the amount demanded, but also for the economic advantages it demanded,” he adds.
But to understand the First French Intervention in Mexico, as that conflict is formally known, it is necessary to review what was happening in Mexico and the geopolitics of that time.
The rising Mexico
The independence of Mexico occurred in 1821, but it took many years for the new country to have stability and a lasting government that was fully recognized by the world.
The country was born as an imperial monarchy that only lasted three years. Then came the establishment of a republic, but one that was hotly contested by federalists and centralists.
At the same time, the privileged of the New Spain regime, mainly the church and the army , established themselves as an autonomous power . This made resolving issues of national life and defending the country against external threats difficult.
In 1833, the nation faced a severe cholera epidemic that severely decimated the population. And in 1836, Mexico suffered the loss of the territory of Texas, which was separated unilaterally.
“Mexico was a very weak country internally and abroad ,” says González Lezama.
And in geopolitics, world powers like England and France were fighting for control of a continent that had been ruled almost exclusively by Spain for centuries.
France, explains the historian, was waiting for the ideal moment to consolidate its position in America, and Mexico, due to its internal situation and geographical position, seemed the ideal place to undertake actions.
“The country was really vulnerable,” he says. “The French not only demanded reparation from the pastry chef and other subjects of the French monarchy. They also demanded advantages that would give them a better position, mainly against England.”
Among them was the demand for access to retail trade, which was not allowed to foreigners and which, if it occurred, would have put Mexican merchants in a very bad position. So that was unacceptable, says González Lezama.
The blockade of Veracruz
In those years, it was not uncommon for merchants to be affected in the revolts for power in Mexico, including foreigners who had various businesses in the capital and in the interior of the country.
In the case of the French, French diplomatic reports said that there were about 450 establishments with an estimated value of 30 million francs.
The government of the French monarch Louis Philippe I instructed his diplomat in Mexico, Baron Antoine Deffaudis , from 1836 to demand payment for damages to the French as a result of the internal battles in Mexico.
Faced with the refusal of the Mexican government, which “does not find that there is the slightest obligation” to compensate for damages suffered by Mexicans or foreigners due to acts of political factions, France sent a fleet of 26 ships led by Deffaudis to the port of Veracruz in March 1838. .
This is Mexico’s main point of trade with Europe and is key to its ailing economy. “It was incredibly strangling him because the main income of the State was the product of the customs”, explains González Lezama.
Mexico had just suffered the separation from Texas, “national pride was already hit enough,” says the historian, so the government had asked France to pay the 600,000 pesos in installments. But he flatly rejected the requests for commercial advantages that they demanded.
Deffaudis did not accept the deal and gave an ultimatum ending at the last minute of April 15. The next day, he begins the blockade of the port of Veracruz .
Unsuccessful negotiations led French troops to open fire on November 27, 1838 against the fort of San Juan de Ulúa.
“In a few hours they finish off the defenses of the port. They kill the Mexican artillerymen and dismantle the Mexican batteries. The French cannons were much superior in quality,” González Lezama points out.
The Mexicans “did not succeed in damaging the French vessels.”
The blockade of France to Veracruz, then, goes from the mere presence at sea to land. The Gauls were posted at different points in the city without much resistance from the Mexican forces.
Although the Mexican government enabled other ports in the Gulf of Mexico, none had the customs capacity of Veracruz. And smuggling became a big problem.
The only Mexican counteroffensive occurred on December 5 of that year. The forces under the command of General Antonio López de Santa Ana forced the French to withdraw, but they did not have the strength to endanger the blockade of Veracruz.
“It had no weight in the situation ,” explains the historian.
“The real weight that resolved the situation was when the English learned that the French had a claim against Mexico and they became concerned, because they knew very well what the true intention of the French was: to win a commercial place.”
In reality, the French presence in Mexico in that intervention was limited to the port of Veracruz and with the exception of three days of fighting, there were no more armed hostilities .
What changed the situation was the arrival at the port, together with a flotilla of 11 ships armed with 370 cannons , of the English minister Richard Pakenham , who presented himself as an intermediary in the conflict.
In the background, González Lezama explains, was that England was Mexico’s main trading partner and the dispute with France was not only affecting English merchant ships, but also threatening to position France at a strategic point in America.
“The heart of the matter was really the struggle of these two powers for control and participation in the distribution of what would later be called Latin America,” adds the historian.
Faced with the English naval threat, France ended up accepting English mediation and in a period of three months the agreement was reached on March 9, 1839 : Mexico would pay the 600,000 pesos in installments (as it had offered from the beginning).
A few days after completing a year of blockade, France handed over the fort of San Juan de Ulúa and withdrew from the port of Veracruz the following month.
The Pastry War was a reflection of a precarious situation that Mexico was experiencing in those years, when it lost Texas, faced French intervention and shortly after the loss of more than half of its territory after a war with the United States, says González Lezama. .
The country did not have a strong government, there were factional disputes for power, and few resources to respond to external threats.
“The reflection came after the war against the US, but this was one of the signs that should have alerted us to what the problem was: we were not a nation,” the historian explains.
“Although we appear to be, we have not established ourselves as a State.”