From the Louvre to the Quai d'Orsay
France had diplomats before it had a minister of foreign affairs and had a minister before it had a ministry.
Diplomatic counsellors to the Secretaries of State
Louis de Revol,
Portrait of S. Marsadi
The Kings of France always had a foreign policy, but to begin with they handled it alone, directly with other sovereigns. They had diplomatic counsellors, for example, Commynes for Louis XI. They sent temporary and subsequently permanent embassies. However, all these things do not make a ministry, which provides a number of services available on demand. The King only had "notary secretaries to the King" to assist him. In the 15th century, these became "secretaries of state". At the end of the century, four secretaries of state shared correspondence with the provinces and abroad.
Louis de Revol, the first Minister of Foreign Affairs.
On 1 January 1589, a new regulation gave exclusive responsibility for the "Department" of foreign affairs to one of these secretaries of state, Louis de Revol. He was the first incumbent of the Ministry; He used to go to see the King every day at five o’clock in the morning. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was therefore very close to the head of state, and when in the 18th century, power was concentrated in a "close cabinet" whose members carried the title of Minister of State, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs continued to be involved. To assist him, Revol had a "commis" and six clerks.
The Secretariat of State and the commis
A Secretariat of State was only set up in 1626. At the end of the century, Croissy, brother of Colbert, and his son Torcy were to create a structure with two and subsequently three offices with geographically separate responsibilities. In 1709, Torcy set up the archive depository. Subsequently, interpreters, the law consultant and the finance bureau appeared. On the eve of the Revolution, there were 39 commis in Foreign Affairs. These bureaucrats followed a slow and modest career and never went abroad.
Ambassadors from the nobility or from among high ranking civil servants
In the beginning, embassies were often headed by prelates, reflecting the importance of the Church. Over the years, the role became secular. Great lords that were rich and disinterested went and ruined themselves in the most prestigious posts such as London or Vienna. However, there were also a great many high ranking civil servants who specialised in Foreign Affairs and who eventually became great professional diplomats, like the Courtins or the Avaux. All these ambassadors had a substantial retinue including many cooks and equerries but few secretaries. Until the middle of the 18th century, they were all paid out of the personal purse of their head.
Towards an organisation for diplomatic service and the Ministry
The Revolution hardly had the time to change the old system. Napoleon decided to recruit diplomats from the Council of State advisors. Talleyrand organised a diplomatic service in which the separation between home and abroad continued. The Restoration provided the Ministry with a strong structure in which the equivocation between geographic and functional criteria could already be seen. In 1853, the Ministry moved to the Quai d’Orsay.