Carte de l'Europe

The national and geopolitical situation: Louis XIV wanted reform
and to contribute to the glory of France!

He was King from the 14 May 1643, but Louis XIV only ruled the country after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661. France had a population of 18 million at the time, mainly farmers who were crippled by debt due to taxes, and a few noblemen that the young King did not trust.

Louis XIV was well-known for his ambition, and he wanted to restore France's image and turn the country into an economic power, making his reign a real page-turner in the history books!

Louis XIV's reign was one of transformation and prestige

Make France the leading power of the continent

The second half of the 17th century in France was when the Monarchy was at its peak. King Louis XIV had absolute power and was a popular authority figure. The Thirty Years' War was over and the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1659 had marked the end of the war with Habsburg Spain.  

But don't rely too much on the apparent peaceful relations between the great European powers! In the shadows, competition was rife and the race for supremacy and the development of overseas territories had begun.

Louis XIV was ambitious and well-aware of France's assets, and so he fully intended on making France the leading power of the continent.

Time for reform

But to make France the leading power of the continent, Louis XIV had to reform the country.  

He embarked upon a bold project including the improvement of the roads, development of waterways, creation of ports and the restoration of the entire administration. 

The King took on a great number of significant projects to give France the infrastructure it had been lacking. Not-to-mention of course a naval, military and civil fleet to spread the country's influence across the globe! 

And as I'm sure you're aware, no significant reform is possible without consequential funding. This is why the Royal Treasury more funds... And quickly!

Jean-Baptiste Colbert's economic policy

King Louis XIV requested that his controller-general of finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, establish a new economic policy. The concept behind this new policy was simple: export more and import less. An effective and radical strategy to address competition from foreign products.

'Colbertism' was therefore focused on the development of industry and factories to ensure streams of revenue while discouraging imports thanks to an increase in customs duties. It was for example at this time that the Gobelins tapestry factory was established in Paris. 

But how can these new factories be supplied with the necessary raw materials? Colbert decided to kill two birds with one stone and made use of the new French colonies in America. He established a merchant and military navy and encouraged trade with overseas countries, because Colbert actually intended to compete with the Dutch and English while taking control of trade routes.

It was in this economic context that the Straits of Gibraltar, the natural route between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, became a strategic route for the leading powers… 

The Canal du Midi, symbol of the Kingdom's economic transformation

The province of Languedoc

Since the victory of the Albigensians in the crusade against the County of Toulouse, the province of Languedoc has been attached to the French crown. 

From the 16th to the 17th century, this wealthy southern province, far from the authority of Paris, expressed its desire for independence and rebelled against central authority on a regular basis. Languedoc was a province in its own right and often difficult to govern. 

It ended up being the key to the new European economic order! 

A canal to encourage the economic development of the Kingdom

In this context whereby Royal absolutism was being renewed, the Canal du Languedoc was key to Colbert's plan for economic reorganisation.

In linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, this canal provided a solution to avoid the Straits of Gibraltar, and therefore avoid paying taxes to the King of Spain on the way. As well as delivering a blow to the Spanish crown, the canal offered a safer marine route, far from the pirate-infested waters of Gibraltar.

Opening this vast communications route in the Province of Languedoc (one of the biggest in the Kingdom of France) was a boost to economic development. As a result, the King's authority in the south of his Kingdom was also given a boost, and it was an effective way to take back control of this unruly province.

Convinced of the benefits of building a canal, on the 14 October 1666, Louis XIV appointed Pierre-Paul Riquet entrepreneur in charge of the canal construction and gave him a title soon after.

Declaration from Louis XIV about the Canal du Midi

[…] at the same time, I came across another design that proved to be of great benefit as the aim was to link the Ocean and the Mediterranean with a canal, so that it would no longer be necessary to travel around Spain to get from one sea to the other. It was a great and challenging project. But it brought such benefit to my Kingdom which as a result, became the trade centre for Europe, acting as referee for trade relations.

A word from His Majesty, Louis XIV