Founded in 1873, the Franco-British Chamber takes pride in its long and distinguished history. In fact, it is both the oldest British Chamber of Commerce in Europe and the oldest ‘foreign’ Chamber of Commerce in France. In the face of daunting challenges, including two World Wars, the Great Depression and the recent Global Economic crises, the Chamber has proven a remarkably dynamic and adaptable organisation, uniting and assisting the Franco-British business community for 140 years.
On 5th May 1873, the Chamber was formally incorporated under the name of the Paris British Chamber of Commerce. It was conceived by a consortium of 22 British retailers, in the spirit of the nascent Free Trade principle. Indeed, William Gladstone’s Liberal government in London had recently signed a Free Trade treaty with the government of the French Emperor Napoleon III. The newly agreed reduction in customs duties created a great opportunity for the Franco-British business community. It was the Chamber’s initial role originally to work for “the benefit and the protection of the English community in France, and in particular in Paris”. The Chamber witnessed remarkably rapid growth in the first few decades of its existence, seeing its ranks swell to 871members by 1914.
The Chamber has always maintained a proud tradition of hosting public debates and discussions. As early as 1880, the Chamber set about organizing such events, or diners-débats, at the Café Riche and the Hôtel Continental in Paris, where contemporary issues such as British colonial policy and American protectionism were discussed. This policy of public relations has continued until the present day, with the Chamber recently hosting an International Women’s Day Conference, providing input to the Treasury’s “Balance of Competence Review”, and also a luncheon in honour of the Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the years of conflict and post-war disruption in the first half of the 20th century were trying times for the Chamber. It was a harsh environment for international commerce, as trade routes were precarious and currencies fluctuated dramatically. The Chamber itself was directly affected in the Second World War when, following the German invasion of France in 1940, a number of staff members including the Secretary General Harold Twitchin were arrested. The Chamber, along with the staff who were fortunate enough to escape France in time, relocated to London for the duration of the war. Despite plummeting membership in the face of hardship, the Chamber persevered, maintaining the ideals of the Entente Cordiale. It was in this period, in 1933, when the Chamber first opened its doors to ‘foreign’ (for which read French) members.
In recent decades however, the Chamber has gone from strength to strength. It bore witness to the establishment of the European Community, which Britain joined in 1973. The European Union, as it is now known, provides the Franco-British business community with highly favourable trade conditions that have enabled it to flourish. The Chamber’s current name, the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce & Industry, was adopted in December 1981.
Today, the Chamber resides in the 17th arrondissement. It boasts a flourishing membership of over 700 businesses, and continues to assist in strengthening cross-Channel commercial ties.
De Gmeline, Patrick. (1999) La Chambre de Commerce franco-britannique, 125 ans de relations transmanche. Paris : Polyprint.