top of page
  • hbanziger

G - 124 : How France snatched Nice and Savoy

When strolling through Nice, you get the distinctive feeling that the architecture is Italian not French. The old town and the representative buildings look like being transplanted from some places in Italy. Everybody speaks French though. There are no road signs nor any advertisements in Italian. The solution to the mystery can be found in the history books. Nice became French in 1860. It was part of the Kingdom of Piedmont like the Italian Riviera and Genoa.

Old Town of Nice between Harbor and the Place de Garibaldi

For centuries France tried to shift its borders east towards the “watershed line” in the Alps. From King Francis I to King Louis XVI, every French king waged wars to achieve this goal. The main obstacle was always the House of Savoy which controlled both sides of the Alps.

The Duchy of Savoy-Piedmont around 1700

Savoy was also a close ally to the House of Habsburg, France’s archenemy. The siege of Nice in 1543 has to be seen in this light as well as the annexation of Liguria by Napoleon in 1802. But these gains were temporary and always reversed by the following peace treaties. As long as Savoy and Austria were sticking together, France could not achieve its goal.

The Place Masséna was built in 1843 by Joseph Vernier when Nice was part of Piedmont

The course of history changed though with the liberal revolution in Europe in 1847/48. National unification was one of the revolutionaries' dreams. There were uprisings in France, Germany, Austria and Italy. The modern Swiss Federation was the result of this movement. After the initial shock, the European aristocracies recovered their grit and used massive military force to suppress the liberal opponents. Despite the military defeat, the dream of Italian and German unification lived on. The House of Savoy saw this as a unique opportunity to become the "unifier" and ruler of Italy and started to sever its ties with Austria.

The Revolution of 1848 by Liberal Parties in Europe

Ten years after the revolution of 1848, the French Emperor Napoleon III (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) and Count Cavour, the Piedmont's Prime Minister, met in Plombières and agreed on a military alliance. Piedmont was too weak to take on Austria but with the military support of Imperial France the plan seemed feasible. As price for his intervention, Napoleon III asked for the transfer of Savoy and Nice.

Cavour and Napoleon III agreeing on Italian Unification

A deal was quickly agreed. Piedmont had reached the conclusion that the loss of two provinces in the west was worth the price for getting all of Italy. Never mind that the Savoyards living south of Lake Geneva and the Italian speaking Niçois preferred to be citizens of Piedmont. They remembered the terrible time under Napoleon Bonaparte and had no desire to repeat the experience.

Battle of Solferino - on each Side fought 130'000 men - the casualty ratio was 15%

War broke out in 1859. What was planned as a short campaign ended in a bloody nightmare for both sides. The generals had underestimated the efficiency of modern artillery and infantry rifles. Casualties on both sides were horrendous. Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, witnessed by chance the carnage at Solferino. Appalled by the number of wounded and dying soldiers, he went home to Geneva and established the Humanitarian Movement. He used the inverted Swiss Flag as its symbol. A few years later, in 1864, Europe’s Great Powers agreed on the Geneva Convention, the first set of rules on warfare.

The new Kingdom of Italy in 1860 - minus Savoy and Nice

But back to Italy. Austria was eventually beaten and ceded Lombardia and Tuscany to France which in return handed them over to Piedmont. It was time to honor the promises made in Plombieres two years earlier. In 1860, Piedmont and France signed the Treaty of Turin which formally ceded the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice to France. To make the deal more palatable, both powers promised to submit it to a popular referendum.

The Piedmontese Garrison leaving Chambéry in 1860 prior to the Arrival of French Troops

After the Piedmontese troops withdrew from Savoy and Nice, France expected to be welcomed with open arms. The opposite happened. The French army had to use bayonets to force its entry into Nice. In the four weeks to the referendum, the new French authorities “cleaned” the vote registers, suppressed any newspaper arguing for staying with Piedmont, prominent citizens were forced to come out in support of the annexation and campaigners for NO were taken into custody. In most voting stations there were no ballots for voting NO. There was no independent supervision. Piedmont had turned its back on the two provinces. It wanted Italy. France run the show now and manipulated the result as it pleased. 99% voted for France. Even Stalin and Mao could not do better ...

The orchestrated Celebration of Savoy's Annexation by France in Chambéry in 1860

The whole story reminds me of how Russia organized last fall the referendums in the four Ukrainian provinces it claimed its own. The methods were the same. It is also interesting to compare the English and the French Wikipedia entry on the same subject. The French article is silent on most of the shenanigans France employed and uses primarily legal arguments to justify why Savoy and Nice are rightfully French. It was not one of France's most glorious hours - but then France was no democracy in 1860.

Napoleon III holding an Audience in 1867 - four years later he was in Exile in England

Without any doubt, both provinces feel being French today. The moment their feelings turned was probably after the First World War when Mussolini turned Italy into a fascist dictatorship. Despite chaotic and frequent changes in government, France remained a democracy and its citizens were free.

Mussolini's Fascism had no Appeal to French People

After France was overrun by German Tanks in 1940, Hitler transferred Nice and a few mountain valleys to Italy. From 1940 to 1944 the citizens of Nice had to support and participate in the Fascist war effort. Many sons never returned. This experience soured the relationship with Italy and everybody was happy when the peace treaty between France and Italy stipulated in 1947 that both Nice and Savoy will perpetually remain French. That is how France got an Italian looking town which is proudly French today

The narrow and charming Streets below the Castle

126 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page