After the establishment of permanent diplomatic relations between the Ottoman Empire and France, “Capitulations” acted as an essential element in France’s commercial and diplomatic policy in the Mediterranean.
The term “capitulation” appeared at the end of the 15th century and signifies trading. It derives from the verb to capitulate, which was used during the 14th century in the sense of negotiating. In legal terms, a capitulation is an agreement, or treaty, by which a state agrees to guarantee certain rights and privileges on a territory under its power. The agreement linking the Ottoman Empire to France mentioned privileges accorded to the French monarchy, each of them being enshrined in a Capitulation. The advantages granted by the Ottoman sultan to a foreign nation were not just linked to trade or customs. Even if these privileges could be the result of these negotiations, Capitulations were, strictly speaking, treaties and their renewal and respect depended on the state of relations between Istanbul and a foreign power. Capitulations were set in the ancient practices of the Byzantine Empire, which granted wide-ranging customs and trade advantages to foreign powers, as well as the right to establish trading posts on its territory, as was the case for Genoa and Venice. After the fall of Constantinople on 29th May 1453, the Ottomans adopted this practice and confirmed the advantages that had been given to the Genoese and the Venetians. The Capitulations granted to France were a consequence of the threat posed to both these powers by the Empire of Charles Quint. According to the tradition, the first Capitulations were given to the embassy of Jean de la Forêt in 1536. The authenticity of these initial agreements is contested by Gaston Zeller but attested by Joseph Billioud. But the succeeding agreements are attested and were regularly renewed, for example in 1569, 1581, 1594 and 1604, bearing witness to the good diplomatic and commercial relations between France and the Porte. Under the reign of Louis XIII, relations with the Ottoman Empire declined. Richelieu was criticised by the public opinion for his alliance with the German and Swiss protestants, and so he made no appeal for support from the Ottoman Empire. Then, the conquest of Crete by the Ottomans led to a severe degradation of relations between the Porte and France. Later, as of 1672, relations between the two states improved because of the conflicts that both powers were involved in: the Polish-Ottoman War and the Franco-Dutch War. The Capitulations were renewed in 1673. After the failure of the Siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman Empire experienced severe set-backs, confronted by the coalition of the Holy League (Venice, Austria, Russia and Poland). The Treaty of Karlowitz, signed in 1699, resulted in a considerable loss of territory for the Ottoman Empire. This was the first unfavourable peace treaty which the Porte had made. Hostilities began again in 1710, the beaten Russians having to give back Azov, but the Austrians took over Belgrade and imposed the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718. However, the Ottomans held onto Morea which they had won back from the Venetians.
The support of France for the Porte led to a period of Francophilia. The 1736-1740 war, between Russia, Austria and Turkey became a relative success for the latter. Thanks to its active mediation, France made possible the conclusion of the Treaty of Belgrade in 1740. The Ottoman Empire was given back the territories that had been acquired by the Austrians and Russians in 1718. In gratitude, the Porte renewed its Capitulations with France in 1740. The new orientations of French diplomacy, and its alliance with Austria during the Seven Years War, resulted in a crisis between France and Turkey. This crisis with the Porte was finally surmounted, but France had lost a great part of its prestige in Ottoman eyes, and recovered it only partly after 1783 with the defeat of England in the American War of Independence. Franco-Ottoman relations remained good until 1798, but Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt had fatal consequences for trade with the Échelles. Consuls and tradesmen were imprisoned and their goods confiscated. After the evacuation of Egypt in 1801, a peace treaty was signed between the two powers in 1802 and the Capitulations renewed at the same time. France was given back what it had lost and was even allowed to navigate freely in the Black Sea. In 1803, Bonaparte re-established the authoritarian system that had been in vigour during the Ancien Régime and which has been abolished by the National Constituent Assembly. In 1835 a report to the king about trade with the Échelles recommended the abolition of surety, which occurred that same year. France was not the only European power to benefit from Capitulations. As from the early 17th century, Great Britain and Holland obtained Capitulations which were regularly renewed. Other powers, such as Venice, Florence, Genoa and Tuscany also received these privileges. However, throughout this long period, France conserved its dominant place in Levantine trade.
The privileges granted to the French crown by the Sultan were not just commercial. For, while French merchants benefited from particularly favourable customs duties, the Capitulations placed the French under the jurisdiction of the King of France. This meant that everything that concerned the internal affairs of French communities in the Levant (trade, justice, policing, inheritance) did not come under the Ottoman state, but under French law and authority. Ottoman justice only intervened if there was a conflict opposing an Ottoman subject and a Frenchman, who was then assisted by the dragoman of the Nation and sometimes by the consul. Thanks to the Capitulations, the French Monarchy was able to set up a network of port trading posts: the Échelles of the Levant and of Barbary. Some consulates situated in the hinterland, such as in Aleppo or Cairo, were thus wrongly called Échelles. Each Échelle was a consulate, in which the community of the French or French Nation in the Échelle were grouped together under the authority of a consul who had policing and legal power over its residents. For two centuries, the consulates were organised using rulings and Ordonnances which gave them an appearance familiar to us from the end of the Ancien Régime. Levantine trade assisted two other aims of France: diplomacy and the protection of Latin Rite Christians and the Holy Places.