The French-Suisse Relationship
The relationship between France and Switzerland has many facets. An estimated 200 000 French people work in Switzerland nowadays, and 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 for France. Also, there are many cultural, scientific, social and political contacts. More than 1 million Swiss citizens speak the French language. History provides points of reference for the relationship and its good and bad times. It is also important to realise that Switzerland did not exist in the fifteenth century. The French Kingdom was much smaller and was militarily, culturally and politically even 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) within the Eidgnossenschaft (Zurich, supported by Habsburg) against Bern, Zug, Lucerne, Schwyz, Glarus, Unterwalden and Uri) led to an intervention by the French king Charles VII (1403-1461) against the Eidgenossen. At the battle of St. Jacob on the Birs in 1444, the Eidgenossen did suffer a defeat. 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). It was the beginning of a friendly relationship of almost 350 years (until Napoleon’s invasion in 1798) and almost a million Swiss soldiers served in French military service, 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 soldiers, who were then in high esteem, and a neutral eastern neighbour. Swiss merchants were given access to the French markets and had a privileged position compared to other foreign merchants. Mutually they would not attack each other. 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 of Charles the Bold.
It was only at the beginning of the sixteenth century that the ‘paix perpétuelle’ was put to the test when some cantons wanted to control the Po-plain in northern Italy and the duchy of Milan. In a complicated international situation between the Pope, Habsburgs and France, this would lead to defeats in September and October 1515, among others at Marignano, against the French king François I (1494-1547). However, this king recognized the importance of a good relationship with the Eidgenossenschaft and another ‘paix perpétuelle’ was signed on November 29, 1516, which was confirmed on May 5, 1521 in Lucerne. The battle of Marignano exposed the division of the eight cantons. The Eidgenossenschaft had its military finest hour after the victorious Schwabenkrieg against Habsburg in 1499.
France had every interest in a neutral and stable Eidgenossenschaft and in the Swiss mercenaries. This trade was a vital source of income for the cantons and Bern was not hindered by France, when they occupied Vaud in 1536. The Reformation would make the situation more complicated, but the “paix perpétuelle” and good relationship would last until 1798. (Source: G. Miège, A.-J. Tornare, Suisse et France. Cinq cents ans de Paix Perpétuells 1516-2016, Freiburg 2016).