The year 2019 marks the 180th anniversary of the re-establishment of French-Serbian diplomatic relations, with the opening of the first French diplomatic office in Belgrade in 1839
However, 1839 only saw France and Serbia renew relations that were actually first established as far back as the 13th century. King Uros I of Serbia (1223-1276) created the first political ties with France by marrying Saint Helen of Anjou (1245), making possible the first diplomatic rapprochement with France (1255), and concluding the first Serbian-French military alliance (1273). Uros II Milutin, son of Uros I, renewed this French-Serbian military alliance in 1308.
Legend has it that in 1389 when news of the Battle of Kosovo reached Paris, King Charles VI ordered the bells of Notre-Dame ring for a full day in celebration of the Serbs’ heroic battle. However, back in the 14th century, Serbia and France were both fighting for their survival: Serbia against the Ottoman expansion; France against England in the Hundred Years War. Their relations thus faded from significance, preventing the resumption of diplomatic ties until the 19th century.
The revival of the Serbian national consciousness was accelerated in the 18th century, with the impact of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Napoleonic era (1799-1815). The Serbian Uprising of 1804, led by Karađorđe, enabled the creation of the first government and the securing of autonomy (1812). From 1809 to 1814, the east coast of the Adriatic was annexed to France as “Illyrian Provinces”, which established contacts between France and areas populated by Serbs. A few Serbs even served in the Illyrian Regiment of Napoleon’s Great Army!
Legend has it that in 1389, when news of the Battle of Kosovo reached Paris, King Charles VI ordered the bells of Notre Dame ring for a full day in celebration of the Serbs’ heroic battle
Commercial relations between France and Serbia were established in the period from 1820 to 1830, when French Romantic writers also became extremely interested in the Serbian struggle for independence: Prosper de Mérimée (La Guzla, 1827), Louise Belloc (Serbian Popular Poetry, 1827), Elise Voïart (Popular Songs of the Serbs, 1834), Stendhal (Memories of a Tourist, 1837) and – above all – Alphonse de Lamartine (Journey in the Orient, 1835).
As the first French writer to visit Serbia, Lamartine was shocked by the infamous Skull Tower, erected in Niš by the Ottomans. He wrote about it: “May they [the Serbs] leave this monument untouched! It will teach their children what a people’s independence is worth, by showing to them the price their fathers paid for it”.
French diplomacy also had growing interest in Serbia. The 1829 Treaty of Adrianople confirmed Serbia’s autonomy and enabled the adoption of the country’s first constitutions (1835 and 1838). The French consulate in Jassi (Romania) and the Embassy in Constantinople encouraged the French authorities to establish official relations with Serbia. France was then ruled by King Louis Philippe I (1830-1848), whose government was headed by Count Louis-Mathieu de Molé (1836-1839). It was on 6th November 1838 that Count Molé signed an executive order creating the “French Consular Agency” in Serbia, then – on 29th November – François Duclos was appointed at its head.
Duclos reached Constantinople on 16th January 1839. His credentials were delivered by the French Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Admiral Albin Roussin – a hero of Napoleon’s navy, while Duclos also met with the Serbian delegation that had just negotiated the approval of the Constitution of 1838 with the Ottoman authorities. He left for Serbia on 21st February, arriving in Niš a few days later. Like Lamartine before him, Duclos also seems to have been shocked by the Skull Tower… He officially presented his credentials to Prince Miloš Obrenović on 19th March 1839, thus formally re-establishing French-Serbian diplomatic relations.
Duclos arrived in Belgrade on 23rd March 1839, when Prince Miloš allowed him to take up temporary residence at his Belgrade royal residence, known as Milošev Konak [Miloš’s Residence], while he took the time necessary to identify a building where he could open the French Consular Agency.
French diplomacy had growing interest in Serbia. The 1829 Treaty of Adrianople confirmed Serbia’s autonomy and enabled the adoption of the country’s first constitutions (1835 and 1838)
This proved to be a very difficult task, due to the city having suffered extensive damage in the wars of 1804 to 1817. Duclos worked on this task up until May 1839, when he had to welcome to Belgrade the Count of Chambord, grandson of King Charles X, and to arrange a meeting with Prince Miloš. Although this visit was not official (the Count of Chambord belonged to the royal family, which had been expelled from power by Louis-Philippe I in 1830), it can be considered the first delegation from France that was welcomed by a French diplomat in Belgrade. Duclos’s primary task, from June 1839 onwards, was to monitor and report to the French authorities about the growing tension between the Prince and the Senate, which culminated in the July 1839 abdication of the Prince.
In the spring of 1839, the new Head of the French Government, Jean-de-Dieu Soult, a former marshal of Napoleon’s forces, understood Serbia’s growing importance in Southeast Europe. He decided to upgrade France’s representation in Belgrade, which led to the consular agency becoming a full consulate on 8th July 1839. Achille de Codrika was appointed at its head, succeeding François Duclos on 30th September.
The consulate was ultimately upgraded to an embassy in 1879, following the recognising of Serbia’s independence at the Congress of Berlin (July 1878). François Duclos, the man responsible for re-establishing French-Serbian diplomatic relations, actually only spent seven months resident in Serbia. However, the bilateral diplomatic relations of today still rest on his seven months of hectic activity in Belgrade.
NOTRE-DAME OF PARIS, A THREAD IN THE SERBIAN-FRENCH HISTORY
Fire ravaged Paris’s famous Notre-Dame Cathedral on 15th April 2019, triggering global sadness. Serbia was the very first country to offer financial support for its reconstruction (€1 million): this gesture, for which the French Embassy expresses its gratitude to Serbia and the Serbian people, also served as a reminder that Notre-Dame has held a key role in French-Serbian history since the Middle Ages.
In 1255, king Louis IX agreed the first diplomatic rapprochement between France and Serbia from the Palais de la Citée – the royal residence – located in front of Notre-Dame, which witnessed this event. Legend has it that the bells of Notre-Dame rang out for a whole day in celebration of the Serbs Christian combatants in the in 1389 Battle of Kosovo – this story was first recounted by King Petar I of Serbia during his 1911 visit to Paris, when he recognised Notre-Dame’s role in French-Serbian history. Serbian officers also attended a 1919 mass at Notre-Dame commemorating the victory of World War I and honouring the Allied victims of the conflict.
Prominent Serbian artists were also inspired by Notre-Dame in the 20th century. Lazar Drljača (1882-1962) painted the cathedral during his period resident in Paris (1911-1914). In the 1930s, two members of the so-called ‘Group of 10’ painted overviews of Notre-Dame: the one by Peđa Milosavljević (1908-1987) may have inspired the other, by his friend Bogdan Suput (1914-1942) – which is now displayed in the National Museum in Belgrade. In 1892, actress Vela Nigrinova had one her greatest successes by playing the role of Esmeralda in the play “Notre-Dame de Paris”, based on the famous novel by Victor Hugo. Notre-Dame today ranks among the most popular sites for the 30,000 Serbian tourists who visit Paris annually.