The French-Swiss Relationship
25 March 2019
The relationship between France and Switzerland has many facets. An estimated 200 000 French people work in Switzerland nowadays.The most significant Swiss contingent living abroad lives in France.
France is the fourth export country for Switzerland, while Switzerland is in the economic top ten of France. There are many cultural, scientific, social and political contacts between the two countries. More than 1 million Swiss citizens speak the French language.
The French Kingdom was until the sixteenth century much smaller and was militarily, culturally and politically overshadowed by the Dukes of Burgundy and the Habsburgs.
Alsace, Lorraine, Franche-Comté, and Savoy were not part of the kingdom, and the Reformation (after 1517) had not yet divided Switzerland and France.
During the Franco-English Hundred Years War (1337-1453), an internal conflict (Zürcherkrieg) in the Confederation (Zurich, supported by Habsburg) against Bern, Zug, Lucerne, Schwyz, Glarus, Unterwalden and Uri) caused an intervention by the French king Charles VII (1403-1461), against the Eidgenossen.
The Eidgenossen lost the was (the battle of St. Jacob on the Birs in 1444). The French king was so impressed by the fighting power, spirit and mentality of the Swiss soldiers that he made the Eidgenossenschaft a favourable peace offer at the peace of Ensisheim (October 28, 1444).
The eternal peace
It was the beginning of a friendly relationship of almost 350 years (until Napoleon’s invasion in 1798). Around one million Swiss soldiers served in the French military, an essential Swiss export product for centuries.
In 1453, the French king Charles VII (1403-1461) and the Suysses, the Eidgenossenschaft of eight cantons, concluded the first treaty of the ‘paix perpétuelle’, the eternal peace.
This treaty would be ratified with great regularity until 1798. The French interest was the disposal of Swiss mercenaries and a neutral neighbour.
Swiss merchants had access to French markets and had a privileged position compared to other foreign merchants.
This alliance became a blessing for France when the Eidgenossenschaft defeated the Burgundian Duke in 1476 (Grandson and Murten) and again in Nancy (1477).
The Habsburg emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) also benefited, because of his marriage with Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482), the daughter and heir of Charles the Bold.
The ‘paix perpétuelle‘ was at risk when some, not all, cantons wanted to occupy and control the Po-valley and the duchy of Milan. The Confederation was a military superpower, but without internal cohesion. And France won the wars in Italy.
The defeats in September and October 1515 (a.o. at Marignano) were the outcome.
The French king recognized the importance of a good relationship with the Eidgenossenschaft and another ‘paix perpétuelle‘ was signed on November 29, 1516, and confirmed on May 5, 1521 in Lucerne.
The finest hour of the Eidgenossenschaft was at the time of the Burgundian Wars (1474-1477) and the Schwabenkrieg against Habsburg (1499).
The Reformation made the situation more complicated, but the “paix perpétuelle” and the good relationship lasted until 1798.
(Source: G. Miège, A.-J. Tornare, Suisse et France. Cinq cents ans de Paix Perpétuells 1516-2016, Freiburg 2016).