The royal Ordonnance of 3rd May 1781 stood as the conclusion of the legislative and reglementary project undertaken by Colbert and aimed at governing trade with the Levant and Barbary, as well as the functioning of consulates.
French sovereigns and their ministers always had a negative view of the small French communities or nations living in the Échelles of Levant or, rather, in consulates. For, an Échelle is a port where a consulate was situated; to simply things, consulates in the hinterland, such as at Aleppo or Cairo, were also called Échelles. Correspondence with the deputies of the French Nations of the Échelles and consuls spoke only of problems and never about what was going well. The information that passed from the Levant to the metropolis went through several filters, before reaching the ministers in question, the Chamber of Commerce of Marseille, the Intendance of Provence, or ministerial services. The result was a multiplication of ministers who saw the Levant just as a place of disorder and chaos amid this diaspora in Ottoman lands.
It is true that the Échelles, or rather consulates, were subject to serious dysfunctions: chronic indebtedness to local usurers because of a unwieldy conditions imposed by Ottoman officers, the fact that consuls did not live in the Levant, conflicts between merchants and consuls etc. The Capitulations meant that France could set up a network of consulates in the Levant and Barbary, thanks to which the Ottoman state abandoned part of its sovereignty. French residents were not subject to taxes or death duties, they benefited from total religious freedom and came under the authority of their consul, who had over these residents the power of policing and justice. The consul could forcibly re-patriot offenders to France.
To remedy these ills, Colbert tried in vain to oblige consuls to take up residency and founded the Compagnie de la Méditerranée, which was a failure. To improve the situation, it was necessary to eliminate the venality of consuls’ position, and transform them into paid royal officers. The great Ordonnance de Marine of 1681, rounded off by the regulations adopted by Colbert, then the council decree passed by Seignelay, established the required foundations for the organisation of consulates, which were then extended over time by various ministers. The consul kept his powers of policing and justice, but was stripped of his financial powers to the benefit of the Assembly of the Nation. The Ordonnance of 21st October 1685 forbade any embarkment for the Levant and Barbary without the authorisation of the Chamber of Commerce of Marseille, which delivered residency certificates. The reforms of Colbert and Seignelay were not made without some resistance from the consuls, who thus were deprived of substantial revenues by the ban on trading and the suppression of the taxes they received as their remuneration. As for the merchants, they complained about having their powers reduced. Respectful protests had no effect, and their resistance was expressed by religious contestation in the Échelles, anticlericalism, and a refusal to practise Christianity between 1685 and 1715.
The ministers managed to impose their reform of the status of consuls by relying on a customary institution: the assembly of the French Nation of the Échelle. It was given the power to promulgate the interior rulings of the Échelle which the consuls had to apply. The financial responsibilities previously attributed to a consul were transferred to the assembly of the nation which elected two deputies who assisted him. As for the consuls, they became genuine state officials in 1691, and could not make decisions or deliver justice without the agreement of the assembly of the nation and the presence of its two deputies.
The provisions adopted by the successors of Colbert and Seignelay after 1685 all went in the direction of greater authority and centralism, with the exception of the Regency period. An age limit for going to the Levant, a ban on the presence of women and girls, as well as the Protestants of the Levant, were the first restrictive measures. Under the Maurepas Villeneuve system, in 1729-1769, centralisation increased, as well as limitations on the length of stays in the Levant, a reduction of the number of trading posts, the payment of security by the traders, and a ban on acquiring real estate in the Levant. This system was abolished in 1769, resulting in some respite for the merchants. However, the Ordonnance de Marine in 1781, re-established the former regulations, while also forcing parent companies in Marseille to make their managers associates.