The rich guests of a mercantilist state. Foreign merchant communities in France in the 18th century

The French state was in the 18th century indubitably a market with a great potential for foreign merchants (Swiss, Germans, Italians, Dutch, English, Greeks etc.). Endowed with a large population, advanced industries and a small but profitable colonial empire, it possessed a strong allure for entrepreneurs from all over the continent. However, entering this market was difficult. Being innovative was a key-prerequisite for anyone who wanted to sell to French people in their home state since the French monarchy was well aware of the attractiveness of its nation to foreign merchants. Not by chance had the state enacted under the reign of Louis XIV a rigidly mercantilist commercial legislation that was aimed at ensuring protection to the own merchants and industrials and hindering the penetration of foreign entrepreneurs and goods into the country.

However, the French state was in a difficult position. Foreign merchants and products were not by definition "enemies" and a complete sealing-off of France would have been regarded catastrophic even by the most ardent mercantilist. The monarchy was interested in the participation of foreign merchants and could accept the influx of foreign products, if this was to the overall advantage of the state. One example is the city of Lyon: The privileges that merchants from foreign nations enjoyed there until 1791 had as one of their main goals to ensure a constant flow of European products towards Marseille which stood in bitter competition with Genoa and Livorno.

It is in this context that foreign merchants found their chance in 18th century France. After the failures of Colbert and Louis XIV to promote strong settlements of French merchants all over Europe, we can observe a new openness in France towards foreigners from 1715 onwards. This new “openness” however was always contested by many actors within the French state, be they ministers at Versailles or toll farmers in the provinces. Foreigners therefore found themselves in France in a delicate position. With the right strategy these actors could acquire substantial riches but they always has to regard closely and attentive the limits within which they operated.

In our panel we want to take a closer look at these limits and their permeability in 18th century France. Foreign merchants could get materially wealthy in 18th century France, but a prerequisite was being rich in networks and lobbying, knowledge and access to information, privileges and rights. We intend to highlight the possibilities for foreign merchants in 18th century France with examples that show how the actors made the best use of the complex situation and thus gained a competitive advantage which in turn enabled them to transform informal riches into monetary riches.