France Occupies Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the government of Mexico stopped making payments on its European debts, France occupied the center of the country and declared the Austrian archduke Maximilian emperor. After a series of political and military disasters, however, France withdrew from Mexico and Maximilian was executed.

Summary of Event

During the early nineteenth century, Mexico and several other Latin American countries gained independence from Spain. Independence was often followed by a series of political upheavals involving rivalries between liberal, republican, and conservative, pro-monarchical, pro-ecclesiastic factions. At least until the end of the Restoration period in Europe (1815-1848), various European monarchies watched these upheavals for an opportunity to reestablish their influence in the region. During this period, the Monroe Doctrine Monroe Doctrine (1823) Mexico;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] Latin America;and Monroe Doctrine[Monroe Doctrine] , which U.S. president James Monroe had articulated in 1823 to discourage European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, underwent two major trials, both ironic, with respect to Mexico. The first occurred when the United States itself engaged in the Mexican War (1846-1848). The second came when, because of the internal disruptions brought by the U.S. Civil War, Europeans saw an opening for a forceful intervention that for several years went unchallenged by the United States. Mexico;French occupation of France;occupation of Mexico Juárez, Benito Maximilian Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Mexico[Mexico] Bazaine, Achille-François [kw]France Occupies Mexico (Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867) [kw]Occupies Mexico, France (Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867) [kw]Mexico, France Occupies (Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867) Mexico;French occupation of France;occupation of Mexico Juárez, Benito Maximilian Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Mexico[Mexico] Bazaine, Achille-François [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867: France Occupies Mexico[3500] [g]Mexico;Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867: France Occupies Mexico[3500] [g]France;Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867: France Occupies Mexico[3500] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 31, 1861-June 19, 1867: France Occupies Mexico[3500]

One cannot understand the Mexican-French War without considering two important forces. The first was the rising Mexican deficit coupled with disastrous borrowing from foreign lenders. The second was the attempt by Indian politician Benito Juárez to solve the country’s diverse problems by instituting what Mexicans refer to as La Reforma, or the Reform. As a liberal parliamentarian opposed to conservative forces and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, Juárez was sent to prison by conservative general Antonio López de Santa Anna Santa Anna, Antonio López de [p]Santa Anna, Antonio López de;and Benito Juárez[Juárez] in 1853. After four years’ exile in the United States, he returned to help promulgate a new liberal constitution for Mexico in 1857.

At the time, Juárez filled two high positions: vice president and chief justice of Mexico’s supreme court. The liberal camp used its temporary majority influence to pass several laws limiting ecclesiastical power—by expropriating Church properties and secularizing major educational and judicial institutions, for example. Faced with vigorous conservative opposition, however, President Ignacio Comonfort agreed to reconsider the terms of the 1857 constitution. Juárez responded by denouncing Comonfort’s government and proclaiming himself president. By 1859, a state of civil war existed in Mexico, as the liberals decreed even more rigid laws against the Church and promised wider reforms against private holders of large landed estates.

By 1860, military forces supporting the liberals entered Mexico City Mexico City . Their sometimes brutal tactics, sacking Church treasures to pay troops and desecrating religious shrines, went well beyond what Juárez had intended. Especially disturbing to outside observers was the seizure of foreign properties. In 1861, the Juárez government declared a two-year moratorium on Mexico’s debts, leaving foreign, especially French, private creditors wondering what their own governments would do to protect their interests.

Reactions came from Spain, Great Britain, and France. The three powers signed the Treaty of London on October 31, 1861, declaring that they would cooperate to force Mexico to resume paying its debts. They then threated to occupy Veracruz. The treaty prompted a reaction from U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, but looming civil war in his own country prevented him from taking any substantive measures to enforce the Monroe Doctrine.

When a Spanish invasion force actually embarked from Cuba, calls supporting the action came not only from France (particularly from Empress Eugenia) but also from Mexican émigrés in Paris, who wanted France to play a leading role in the coming conflict. Napoleon III decided to back up his initial commitment of two thousand troops by doubling that number, possibly in order to counterbalance the Spanish forces in the New World. Shortly after they landed, however, conflict between the treaty powers emerged: The French seemed bent on a full conquest of Mexico, which was more than Spain and Great Britain had intended. The other two countries had soon pulled out of the war, leaving it largely between the French, France’s Habsburg allies in Austria, and Mexico.

French troops entering Mexico City.

(Premier Publishing Company)

French forces suffered a setback when they left the Gulf Coast. They were defeated by Mexican liberal forces at Puebla on May 5, 1862, an event that is now commemorated by the Cinco de Mayo celebration, a symbol of Mexican nationalism. The defeat caused a redoubling of French determination to unseat Juárez. Immediately, credits for a much larger army under the command of General Achille-François Bazaine were passed.

As Juárez’s prospects declined, support for establishing a conservative monarchical regime in Mexico rose, both within the country and abroad. In Europe, a peculiar combination of circumstances yielded a scheme to place Habsburg archduke Maximilian on a newly created Mexican throne. Archduke Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Francis Joseph I, had already gained recognition for skillful administrative service in Habsburg regions of northern Italy. The choice of Maximilian to go to Mexico was closely linked with relations between the House of Habsburg in Vienna and the family of French emperor Napoleon III, especially Empress Eugenia.

The empress was a descendant of the Spanish Habsburgs, the line of Charles V and Phillip II displaced by the French Bourbons after the War of the Spanish Succession in 1715. Whether her role was really a determining factor in Maximilian’s ascension of the Mexican throne, some suggest that Eugenia was anxious to see the glory of her ancestors restored in the former territory of New Spain. From Napoleon’s point of view, using French arms to support a new monarchy in the Western Hemisphere could add to France’s importance as a civilizing force in the non-European world. At the same time, implantation of French influence in Mexico could open more commerce with Latin America in general.

Maximilian comforting the priest attending him before his execution.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

With Bazaine’s army supplementing the French forces already there, France ousted Juárez and placed Maximilian on the new throne. French intentions were to keep troops in Mexico for about three years, with an added commitment of several thousand foreign legionnaires for six more years. Still, supporters of Juárez (among them General Porfirio Diaz, who later became president) pledged that they would regroup and continue to fight. There was even hope that they might receive material aid from the United States, since Congress’s official correspondence with Mexico City was still being addressed to Benito Juárez.

Whatever dreams Emperor Maximilian shared with his wife Carlotta (a member of the Belgian royalty) as they took the reins of government, they would fail dismally trying to set internal Mexican affairs straight over the next few years. Their failure was perhaps inevitable, given the ambivalence of France’s investment in their venture. Lacking adequate knowledge of the financial situation before the French military intervention and clearly misled in negotiations with Napoleon III’s advisers, Maximilian signed a vague document later known as the Convention of Miramar. That convention bound him to make up the heavy deficits left by the Juaristas and also to pay indemnities to France for its military aid.

Maximilian ignored warnings against overburdening an already paralyzed treasury by pursuing grandiose plans for his palace at Chapultepec and an imperial theater. He failed, moreover, to perceive just how precarious his military situation was and how dependent his regime remained on General Bazaine’s support. In stages, Bazaine came to realize that he—and with him the entire edifice of French backing for Maximilian—risked falling prey both to incompetence and to intrigues hatched by unscrupulous cronies surrounding the emperor and empress. Shadows of pending failure loomed in other areas as well, particularly as conservative demands for restitution of Church property, clerical reinstatements, and repeal of land reforms remained unfufilled.

By 1866, the die was cast: If Napoleon III did not take more direct steps to aid Maximilian (a plea carried by Empress Carlotta on a special mission to Paris), no path but abdication seemed possible. The Mexican emperor reached his lowest ebb after Carlotta, then clearly afflicted by mental disorders, traveled to Europe, never to return. Soon afterward, in February, 1867, Bazaine began carrying out Napoleon’s order to prepare all French forces for embarkation, leaving isolated units to fall to Juaristas taking revenge against supporters of the emperor, especially in the infamous massacre of San Jacinto. Maximilian’s own fate was sealed by his capture and execution at Querétaro on June 19, 1867, an event almost immediately depicted in a famous painting by French artist Édouard Manet.


The Mexican-French War reflected outmoded assumptions of the eighteenth century still held by conservative regimes in Europe. These assumptions were destined to lead to failure in the internationally changed environment of the second half of the nineteenth century. Empires controlled by hereditary dynasties—in this case Napoleon III’s Second Empire and the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire—were weighed down by internal and international intrigues that, in combination with the revival of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine, condemned their Mexican venture to failure. Despite the internal political and socioeconomic difficulties that continued to plague Mexico for the rest of the century, the abortive experience of a European-supported monarchical regime helped confirm that republican, constitutionally defined separation of powers would prevail.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barker, Nancy N. “Monarchy in Mexico: Harebrained Scheme or Well-Considered Prospect?” The Journal of Modern History 48 (1976): 51-68. An examination of contradictions between rational policy priorities, as well as contradictions connected with attempts to establish Maximilian as Mexico’s emperor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delorme, Philippe. Les rois assassins. Paris: Bartillat, 2002. Revisits the circumstances surrounding Maximilian’s execution in 1867. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duncan, Robert H. “Political Legitimation and Maximilian’s Second Empire in Mexico.” Mexican Studies 12, no. 1 (1996): 27-66. Focuses mainly on the weakness of the internal Mexican social, and economic, and political factors that supported Maximilian during his brief reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Robert R. “Arms Across the Border: United States Aid to Juárez During the French Intervention in Mexico.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 63 (1973): 1-68. Treats the critical question of U.S. inability to defend Mexico from foreign intervention during the Civil War.

Mexican War of Independence

President Monroe Articulates the Monroe Doctrine

Texas Revolution

Mexican War

Battle of Chapultepec

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Ends Mexican War

U.S. Civil War

Díaz Drives Mexico into Civil War

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Francis Joseph I; Benito Juárez; Édouard Manet; Maximilian; Napoleon III. Mexico;French occupation of France;occupation of Mexico Juárez, Benito Maximilian Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Mexico[Mexico] Bazaine, Achille-François

Categories: History