'Cannon Law' during the Politique des Réunions: French Power Politics in the Bidasoa Border and the Crisis of the Customary Law of Nations in the Time of the Politique des réunions

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The so-called time of the politique des réunions is considered a momentous period in the long reign of Louis XIV. It marked the apparently unstoppable rise of France to European hegemony, but also its fall into hubris. The story is well known. In 1679 the Peace of Nijmegen had put an end to the Franco-Dutch War, but Louis XIV did not feel satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations. Thus after the signing of the treaty he took advantage of his superior power to proceed to the annexation (réunion) of certain territories on the northern and eastern borders of his kingdom. In order to give an appearance of legitimacy to what basically were acts of arbitrary aggression in peacetime, he established a number of special courts (chambres de réunion) with the only purpose of fabricating legal justifications for the occupations. This display of force ended up alienating most European powers. The result was the complete diplomatic isolation of France. The Nine Years War, also known as the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697), made the Sun King return to a more prudent foreign policy. In this sense, the politique des réunions marked the peak of his power but also his limit. It is no coincidence if researchers have dedicated much more time to its condemnation (or justification) than to the study of its real historical implications. In this paper I will try to give some insight into the disturbing implications that this form of power politics had not only for border affairs but also more generally for the rule of ius gentium. My paper however will not focus on the northern or eastern borders where the chambres de réunion were formally established. Instead, my attention turns to the southwest, particularly to the French-Spanish border in the Basque-speaking Bidasoa River region situated between the Gulf of Biscay and the western Pyrenees. Unlike Flanders, Alsace or the Franche-Comté, the Bidasoa was far from being a strategic priority for Louis XIV. In fact, military activity in the region was consistently low during the whole period.In spite of this, during the 1680s the Bidasoa suffered the brutal consequences of French power politics just like other strategic border regions. Far from being considered a minor question, it was the object of intense and persistent attention by Louis XIV's foreign service. My research makes evident that the politique des réunions was not directed uniquely to highly strategic positions, and consequently it was not motivated by defensive concerns only. Furthermore, it shows that the brutal methods applied in the north and the east were actually common practice all along the French borders, implying a coordinated effort from the court. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that even if every aggression was justified by opportunistic ad hoc arguments, French power politics were informed by a more general political doctrine that intended to legitimate the sovereign’s arbitrary use of force. The result was the debasing of both the rule of border customary law and ius gentium in general, including traditional ways of settling disputes between border communities.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTransregional Territories
Subtitle of host publicationCrossing Borders in the Early Modern Low Countries and Beyond
EditorsViolet Soen, Bram de Ridder, Werner Thomas, Sophie Verreyken
Place of PublicationTurnhout
PublisherBrepols Publishers
Number of pages37
ISBN (Electronic)978-2-503-58494-2
ISBN (Print)978-2-503-58493-5
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Law of Nations
  • Power Politics
  • Borders
  • History of International Relations
  • Early Modern History
  • Louis XIV


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