In a small town called Tacubaya on the outskirts of Mexico City, a Frenchman had come to Mexico and established a pastry shop in the 1830s. His name was Mr. Remontel. We don’t know what circumstances caused Mr. Remontel to make his way from his native land, what brought him to leave home and travel thousands of miles away to set up a bakery. But that’s what he did.
When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1830, the baby nation established commercial ties with the United States for obvious reasons, but France became Mexico’s third largest trading partner. France was in a building boom, and it craved the natural resources Mexico provided. However, French goods in Mexico were still subject to higher tariffs than those from the US or Great Britain.
Mexico was still in a state of flux politically and socially. The lack of stability was hurting trade and the economy. Rival political groups supported sometimes competing militias who fought each other and, sometimes, these groups attacked foreigners. Mr. Remontel apparently became the subject of one of those attacks. He claimed that Mexican soldiers came into his pastry shop and destroyed it, ransacked it. He made a formal complaint to the French government, asking for them to help him recover his losses through diplomatic channels. He was asking for over 50,000 pesos in compensation, but his shop, according to reports of the day, was worth little more than 1,000 pesos. Now, please realize that, at that time, the average salary in Mexico City was 1 peso.
The French government, angry for what they considered to be an affront to one of its citizens (and some attacks on other French people as well), plus their frustration over the high taxes on French imports to Mexico decided to take action. They wanted to right the perceived wrongs done to them. In what may be considered one of history’s greatest over-reactions, France declared war on Mexico. They ordered a complete blockade of all of Mexico’s ports from the Yucatan the US border, and they first bombarded then occupied the largest Mexican port on the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and the two sides signed a treaty ending the blockade and the war. Mexico agreed to pay damages for destruction of French property and to lower tariffs on French goods. However, Mexico never paid reparations for the damages done to French property, so, using the non-payment as a justification, France declared war on Mexico again in the 1860s and attempted to establish a monarchy using Archduke Maximilian of Austria as the king (who later gets executed by Mexican forces).
More bloodshed followed. Mexican instability continued for decades. One could make the argument that today’s ills facing Mexico have their roots in this period. It wasn’t until the 1880s, fifty years after Mr. Remontel’s shop was vandalized, that the two nations finally agreed to drop the issues that led to the years of violence and ill will. Surely such an important period of Mexican history deserves a name fitting of such a time of instability and suffering.
Yet, because these years of pain, destruction, hardship, and death all started in the village, at Mr. Remontel’s bakery shop, the conflict is known today as the Pastry War.