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The French Chamber's History

 

TAMPONThe French Chamber of Commerce in London was founded in December 1883 by a few French businessmen in Great Britain. These men, who were mainly traders in raw materials or agricultural products and bankers, wanted to promote their liberal ideals as well as defending their business interests. 

Articles of Association of the Chamber shed light on their intentions, namely to “represent [their] views regarding means most likely to favour and promote French trade development abroad, through the extension of international relations”. Reading between the lines, French businessmen had thus set up a pressure group to encourage the British government to abolish its trade barriers. At the time, Queen Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India and William Gladstone was Prime Minister. Jules Grévy was the President of France, and Jules Ferry the Prime Minister. 

At its creation, the Chamber counted 51 companies as members. At the time, trade relations between France and the United Kingdom (UK) were regulated by the Cobden-Chevalier treaty, signed in 1860. It had reduced French duties on British manufactured goods and British duties on French wines and brandy. 

The treaty was considered to be a cornerstone in the development of free trade in Europe; however its scope was very narrow and most export products were still subject to heavy trade barriers. Indeed two thirds of British exports were raw materials and semi-finished goods (e.g. iron, coal and semi-finished textiles), whereas half of French exports were textiles and cloths. France also exported luxury goods. 

None of these goods fell under the scope of the treaty. Such protectionist trade barriers were strongly resented by French merchants and the French Chamber of Commerce in London was explicitly created to advance a free trade agenda. Liaising with the British Board of Trade in the years before the First World War, the Chamber could boast successful step by step negotiations leading to the quasi-freedom to import French goods in the UK. 

Not only was commercial competition intense, colonial rivalry was fierce and repeatedly subject to media hype on both sides of the Channel, as the two states endeavoured to extend their influence outside Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, Great Britain was often caricatured as “la perfide Albion", the perfidious Albion, by French journalists, whereas British national pride was notably expressed in a movement called 'jingoism'. British and French diplomatic tensions climaxed in 1898 over the control of Fachoda, a small outpost in Sudan. 

However, “colonial bones of contention” were resolved by the signature of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 which settled disputes related to Egypt, Morocco and the Far East. 

In the meantime, the French Chamber of Commerce in London thrived. In 1901, the Chamber had 349 members. This grew to more than 700 in 1908, including companies which still exist today: Cartier, Boucheron, Hachette, Michelin, Pernod, Schneider, Vuitton, la Société Générale, le Crédit Lyonnais, Nestlé or Saupiquet. 131 years after its creation, the Chamber draws on a network of more than 600 members, including a remarkably high number of blue chip companies, positioning the Chamber at the heart of the Franco-British business community. 

The French Chamber of Commerce initiated the project of a major Franco-British fair in 1908 that took place in Shepherd’s Bush and in which numerous French and British companies were represented. The exhibition was a real success and 8 to 9 million visitors attended it. In the end, revenue of 6 million francs was derived from companies and visitors. 

In 1883, 26,000 French citizens formed the French Community in London, and 125 years later, it has increased to  more than 300,000 expatriates, as recorded on the register of the French Consulate in Great Britain. 

A relatively small number compared to the half million of French individuals who were living abroad at the time. French individuals preferred to settle in Argentina or Brazil. During an official visit in London Raymond Poincaré praised the “efforts of all French citizens in London”. He claimed to have visited “several French colonies abroad” and “never [to] have seen such a united and homogeneous one as that in London”. Notably, at the beginning of the 20th century, the French Chamber was already receiving demands originating from young French poeple who wanted to find a job in Great Britain. 

All magazines of the Chamber would include in this period a section dedicated to this issue. A century later, the advice given then sounds very familiar. The ultimate condition to a successful job search in Great Britain was that of “speaking English fluently”. Indeed according to the unreserved wording of the time “what good can [French job seekers] be if they don’t understand what they are being told and if they can’t express themselves in the language of the country?”. 

During the interwar period, the Great Depression affected both France and the UK and led to a general increase of protectionist trade regulations. The German occupation of France led to the enactment of the Trade with the banning all sorts of trade with France and  North-African territories under French ruling. On the 17th of June 1940, Charles de Gaulle speaking from London on the BBC radio called for French resistance. At first, British authorities were suspicious of such a self-proclaimed leader deprived of any democratic legitimacy, but London subsequently became a decision-making centre as well as a symbol of French resistance against German occupation.

Enemy Act

During the Second World War and in the context of the London blitz, the activities of the French Chamber of Commerce of London focused on aid and assistance by creating a mutual-aid committee for French refugees in the UK. On the 6th of January 1942, the monthly lunch of the Chamber was attended by Charles de Gaulle, who saluted “two ancient and honourable nations which, in spite of historical setbacks, hold each other in special esteem” and encouraged the Chamber to play a key role in the “French reconstruction”. After the liberation of North Africa in Spring 1943, the Chamber successfully lobbied for the suspension of the Trade with the Enemy Act for these territories. In the same year, the French Chamber of Commerce in London changed its name into the French Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain. 

Following the end of the Second World War, 6 European states pooled their coal and steel resources thus forming in 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community, on the basis of which the European Community would emerge in 1957. The UK feared infringements on their sovereignty and voluntarily chose not to participate in the ECSC, before altering its views. Membership applications to the European Community (EC) were vetoed twice by Charles de Gaulle in 1963 and 1969, and the UK finally joined the EC in 1973. British membership of the EC resulted in new activities for the French Chamber of Commerce, which then focused increasingly on the assistance of French SMEs seeking to settle in the UK. The French Chamber subsequently developed into a successful networking platform for both British and French companies in the UK, as well as an efficient provider of business setting-up and accountancy services. 

François Mitterand, president of the French Republic from 1981 to 1995, attended a reception organised by the French Chamber of Commerce on the 20th of October 1983, during which he stressed that successes of French companies in the UK would be successes for all French individuals and for France. 

Since its creation, the Chamber of Commerce has periodically published magazines to inform both its members and the public. Its magazine was renamed “INFO” in 1979. Today, communication tools of the Chamber include a broad range of devices. However its “INFO” bimonthly magazine remains a key source of information for Franco-British business participants. 

Although tensions may have periodically emerged from time to time, France and the UK remain today more than ever strategic partners, economically interdependent and politically connected. Interestingly a Channel Tunnel was already projected 125 years ago. The Island has now been directly connected to the Continent since 1994 and the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Thousands of travellers cross the Channel on a daily basis, testimony of the strong connections between the two countries. 

 

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