In this French Revolution Bicentennial, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet meets the many pretenders to the throne of France.
On Monday 30 January last, I clearly remember standing in my Parisian kitchen, hoping to defrost something that might pass for dinner, when the telephone rang. "The King is dead," my friend Dominique announced dramatically. "It is a disaster."
Now 1989, as the French Ministry of Culture, the Mairie de Paris, the French Tourism Board, various Air France offices round the world, and the all-blue-white-and-red window-displays at Galeries Lafayette (complete with miniature tricolour key-ring guillotines) won't allow you to forget, is Revolution Bicentennial Year here. Some things therefore take a little longer to register. Only two weeks before, TF1, the main commercial television channel, had treated us to an extraordinary phone-in live extravaganza purporting to be a reconstitution of Louis XVI's trial. Roger Planchon, the closest we have to Sir Peter Hall, played the King; Jean-Edern Hallier, the maverick novelist and professional provocateur, thrice blackballed from the Académie Francaise, was Fouquier-Tinville, the public prosecutor. And acting as Louis's defender was one of present-day France's most hated figures, the flamboyant barrister Jacques Vergès, whose clients include Klaus Barbie and the Lebanese terrorist convicted of having masterminded the bloody September 1986 Paris bombings, Georges Ibrahim Abdallah.
Viewers were invited to pass the verdict all over again. Over 65% voted against death, which didn't bode so well for the projected year-long celebrations, already budgeted at some 4 billion francs. On the other hand, the 50,000 or so French royalists, my friend Dominique de Lastours - whose ancestors either emigrated or got their heads chopped off during the Revolution - among them, were delighted. "All this Bicentennial nonsense will lead to exactly the opposite of what was intended," he'd said with glee. "What actually went on during the French Revolution doesn't bear close inspection in our mawkish, liberal times."
These optimist forecasts are about the only mutual ground to be found between the various warring French royalist factions, a breed even more divided than, say, the London-based Free French during World War Two, and no more numerous. There are Left-Wing monarchists and Le Pen-voting monarchists. There are Bonapartistes and there are Orléanistes. And - until 30 January 1989 at least - there were enough pretenders to fit each splinter group. Except that on that very morning, in Vail, Colorado, the 52 year-old Prince Alphonse de Bourbon, Duke of Anjou and Cadix, grandson of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson in direct line of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and considered by an increasing number of French royalists to be the only rightful pretender to the hypothetical Trône de France, skied down a piste that had just been closed off to be readied for the afternoon's world downhill racing championships, straight into a steel cable marking the finish line - and, barely a week after the anniversary of Louis XVI's 1793 execution, was decapitated.
"His son Louis becomes the rightful pretender now," Dominique went on. "But he's only 15 - he hasn't got a chance." I refrained from saying I didn't feel the late Duc d'Anjou had stood that much of a chance to reign as King Alphonse I of France either. French royalists are serious about these things. Besides, what Dominique really meant was that the young "Louis XX" was no match for the other serious Pretender, Henri, Comte de Paris, 80, descended from Louis XIVth younger brother, Philippe, Duc d'Orléans - and also from France's last reigning King (and first Constitutional monarch) Louis-Philippe, deposed by a Bonaparte in 1848.
The Orléans branch had been in almost sole possession of the field for over a century - to the extent that in 1886, at the shaky beginnings of the French Third Republic, an uneasy National Assembly passed a Bill of Exile barring the Orleans pretenders from living on French soil. The Bill was repealed in 1950, and the Comte de Paris, who had fought in the Foreign Legion during the Second World War, came back to France with his family, soon to be sought out by General de Gaulle. The Pretender and the then-retired General started meeting regularly over lunch, a habit which didn't stop with de Gaulle's return to power in 1958.
The Comte de Paris claims de Gaulle promised him he would name him as his successor shortly before the end of his first Presidential mandate in 1965 - a scheme not unlike Franco's high-handed restoration of monarchy in Spain, having appointed Juan-Carlos de Borbon as his successor - but that the General's entourage almost coerced him into standing a second time. Surviving Gaullists guffaw at this. One didn't coerce de Gaulle, they say, adding that the Comte would have believed anything.
French Royalists, of course, don't base the validity (or lack thereof) of the Comte's claim on De Gaulle's hypothetical anointment, but on an arcane dynastic debate: could Louis XIV's son Philippe, who became King Philip V of Spain in 1700, by formally renouncing his claims to the French throne, actually give them up in his posterity's name as well? Yes, answers the younger Orléans branch, since that conveniently puts them next in line. No, say the Légitimistes, who quote whole treatises of monarchic law to the effect that the head of the elder branch is next in line of succession, whatever decisions one of his ancestors may have taken in his own lifetime. Accordingly, the Légitimistes supported the late Alphonse, Duc d'Anjou.
Of course there's a lot more than minute constitutional legalities involved here. The Comte de Paris and his 9 surviving children (out of 11) have come under a lot of unseemly publicity in recent years. First, his younger son Thibault married without his permission a Scottish girl of good, but not noble family, Miss Marion Gordon Orr. The Comte was so furious (almost all his other children have married into European royalty) that when Thibault's first son died aged 18 months, he flatly refused permission for the baby's body to be buried in the Orleans Royal Chapel in Dreux. A few months later, Thibault was arrested for burgling paintings from a villa in Southern France, and was sentenced to a year in jail, to screaming headlines from the delighted French popular press.
Then the Comte's eldest son and heir, Henri, Count of Clermont, divorced from his first wife (née Princess von Würtemberg) to remarry a divorcée commoner, whereupon his father stripped him of his rights to the throne, demoting him to mere Comte de Mortain (pop. 3,000), and appointed Prince Henri's own 19 year-old son Jean as Duc de Vendôme and heir to the French Crown. (Prince Henri, who makes a living flogging his scent "Lys Bleu" to Japan and the Gulf countries, refuses to accept his father's ruling.) Meanwhile, the Comte himself was separating from his wife of fifty years (née princesse Isabelle d'Orléans-Bragance) to go and live with a Madame Monique Friesz, the housekeeper of the Fondation Condé, a charity for the elderly he runs in Chantilly. The Comtesse retaliated by suing for family property, jewels and silver which she claimed the Comte was selling at the instigation of Mme Friesz.
The Comte de Paris's fourth son Jacques, the present self-styled Duc d'Orléans, known in Paris as "rent-a-Duke" because he and his wife, the pianist Gersende de Sabran, will grace any committee or attend any party they are asked to, briefly went into the champagne business (it sold, or tried to sell, under the brand-name "Champagne Duc d'Orléans") and is now a reporter for Dynastie, a royal-watching weekly next to which Ingrid Seward's Majesty reads like The Independent Magazine. His 44-year-old sister Claude divorced in 1982 from the husband their father had handpicked for her, Prince Amédée of Savoy.
But to many of his former partisans, the Comte de Paris's chief fault remains having declared for Francois Mitterrand in 1981. The Comte says Mitterrand is the most "monarchic" president since de Gaulle. He may have a point, but it is not one the majority of French Royalists - including many members of the Orléans family - are prepared to take. French royalists by and large believe Mitterrand is the Anti-christ. (The Comtesse de Paris herself once told me that France was being ruled by "bandits," professed support for National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, then unfelicitously explained that Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, had had to "overcome the heavy handicap of his Jewish origins.")
All of which helps explain the rising popularity of the late Alphonse, Duc d'Anjou, King Juan-Carlos's first cousin, a quiet, unassuming French-Spanish banker, who for quite some time was better known for being General Franco's handpicked aristocratic husband for his granddaughter, Maria Del Carmen Martinez-Bordiu. The man who took it as his sacred task to further the Anjou claim to the French throne is Baron Pinoteau, a chubby, dapper, fastidiously polite man whose title was created by, of all French monarchs, Napoleon. This unlikely kingmaker masterminded a low-key campaign in which Prince Alphonse politely started answering all invitations from French Legitimist Royalist circles to attend ceremonies excluding the Orléans family, never issued a formal claim to the French throne ("it has to come from the people," he said), and eventually won a Court case against the Orleans four months ago to retain his Anjou title. (A sure indicator of Prince Alphonse's growing popularity was the annual January 21st Commemorative Mass for Louis XVI, over which he started presiding five years ago, and which soon drew twice the attendance of the rival Orléans Mass said in another Paris church.) Although Prince Alphonse never pronounced on political issues, Pinoteau is an avowed Le Pen partisan, and the annual Mass is said in Latin, in defiance of Vatican rulings.
Baron Pinoteau has vowed to serve the young prince Louis's cause as he did his father, but it is fairly obvious he will have a much harder time of it. So obvious that many French royalists have started reconsidering their loyalties, and giving the field another look. The result has been a recent flourishing of Pretenders, all kinds of Pretenders, who feel this may be their big chance (or, who, more simply, have been "discovered" by the ever increasingly Royalty-obsessed French Press.)
First there were a few tentative stirrings from Switzerland, where Prince Napoléon - descended from Jerôme Bonaparte, Napoléon's brother whom he made King of Naples - lives. (Until a few years ago, French debutantes were presented to the Princesse Napoléon.) This elicited in no time a reaction from a Count Léon, who raises prize black hens in Villiers-sur-Marne, some 40 miles out of Paris, and claims to be the illegitimate great-grandson of Napoleon. Count Léon's card bears a genealogical tree which he'll gladly explain to anyone who might ask. The gendarmes at Villiers-sur-Marne have granted him a special parking pass and a N.B. registration plate for his battered Peugeot. "They respect me because many of them are Corsicans," Count Leon explains. Count Leon is fairly famous in his Département of Seine-et-Marne (he regularly features in the local paper, and on the local TV news) but his following outside the area is weak, to say the least.
We've also seen the recent advent of Charles XII, a French-Canadian real-estate dealer from Stouffville, Ontario, who claims to be descended from Louis XVI's son Louis XVII - over whose death, in 1795, aged 10, at the Temple Prison in Paris, strong doubts still linger. In the XIXth century over half a dozen pretenders, including a West Indian quadroon, appeared at various times claiming to be the lost prince, with little success. The self-styled Canadian Charles de Bourbon, Duc de Berry first made headlines a year ago, claiming to be directly descended from one of the most convincing early pretenders, Charles Guillaume Naundorff (1785-1845.) He now has a small but devoted band of followers, led by the elderly Baroness Marie-Madeleine de Rasky, and the actress-turned-historical novelist Jacqueline Monsigny, who organise tea-parties for him. At the time, Naundorff's claims had been acknowledged by the Royal House of the Netherlands, and the Dutch Ambassador is infallibly represented by several Hesse princesses at Baroness Rasky's parties.
Then, just in case, there is Prince Sixte de Bourbon-Parme, 46, a descendant of a younger Bourbon branch, and whose brother Hugues pretends to the Spanish crown. Prince Sixte doesn't exactly pretend, but he is, we are told, "available". (It runs in the family.) Prince Sixte de Bourbon-Parme is known for his extreme-rightist opinions. He numbers among his close associates Christian Lebanese militiamen, Italian MSI members, and the Basque reactionary leader Ernesto Mila. With such friends one may make the kind of enemy who, eight years ago, on a quiet Sunday morning, surged from behind Prince Sixte's back near Saint-Augustin church in Paris, slit his throat over 4 inches with a razor, missing the carotid artery by a millimeter, and ran away, never to be traced.
But some other Bourbons lead notably quieter lives - such as the urbane Académicien Français Jacques de Bourbon-Busset, descended in male line from the illegitimate son of a XIIth century Bourbon bishop. The Bourbon-Bussets would be the eldest Bourbon branch had they been legitimized (not necessarily easy in the circumstances,) and every now and then, a member of the family points out that they gained actual recognition when they were allowed to call themselves Bourbon in the XIVth century. The present Bourbon-Busset wisely stays away from the controversy, secure in the knowledge that his life seat at the Académie founded by Cardinal Mazarin in the name of Louis XIV is rather more prestigious, and a good deal more secure, than having to slug it out with half a dozen other pretenders. In today's France, this, of course, gives his the kind of legitimacy any Pretender, and most politicians, can only wistfully dream about.
© Copyright The Tatler & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1989