The Man Who Would Be King

Louis de Bourbon, heir to the throne of France, arrives in his ancestor's city next month for a friendly visit. But the politics of French royalty require finesse.

When the curtain falls, Mario Sylvander, an Alliance board member who teaches French at John Burroughs School, will help the prince escape for what Midwesterners inaccurately call mountain biking. "It's really all-terrain biking," explains Sylvander, "and in French it's called VTT, velo-tout-terrain. Jane didn't know what that was, so she first transmitted it as four-wheeling -- hop in your Ford Explorer and go bouncing around -- and then as motocross!" When the real sport became clear, the prince accepted with alacrity. Now Sylvander's just hoping his guest remembers to pack shorts and tennies: "I'm not sure of his level of technical ability on a mountain bike, so I'm thinking about a trail about 30 minutes outside St. Louis that starts out very easy, with big wide track, then crosses a couple creeks and narrows. If he likes it, we could do it twice."

Sylvander has already met the prince, at a dinner at Paris' Le Mercure last April. "He seemed not shy but demure," says Sylvander. "Obviously he's used to being the focus of attention, so he's not going to make any outlandish comments. His assistants were wonderfully jovial, though -- what we'd call in French bons vivants. And the prince speaks both French and English with a light Spanish accent, which is charming."

Louis de Bourbon grew up in Madrid, attending that city's prestigious French schools and finishing with a master's degree in finance from the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes Financieres. (He also attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana, where he learned to love American sports.) He now bears "administrative responsibilities" at the Banco Banif Banqueros Personales S.A. and will have a chance to talk business with local executives at a Monday-morning breakfast.

Louis de Bourbon should be a natural at global negotiation: French, Spanish, English, Italian, German, Austrian, Hungarian and Polish blood all run deep-blue in his veins, and his family tree grows up through many kings' reigns.

He also happens to be the great-grandson of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

In 1931, Spain's king, Alfonso XIII, went into exile to spare his people a civil war they endured anyway. Franco took power, and in 1947 he declared Spain a kingdom without a king. One of Alfonso's four sons stood to inherit the throne -- but two had died young with hemophilia, and a third, Don Jaime, was deaf and mute. That left Don Juan, who was far too liberal for Franco's taste. So Franco leapfrogged the father and eventually crowned his son, Juan Carlos.

Meanwhile, Don Jaime, the deaf and mute son, had married, and one of his sons, Alfonso Carlos, fell in love with Franco's granddaughter. They married and had children, the eldest being Louis de Bourbon. Then, in 1991, Alfonso was decapitated in a skiing accident in Colorado, leaving 15-year-old Louis to inherit the title of duc d'Anjou along with his father's sportsmanship, savoir-faire and royal claim.

Of course, were the royalists to prevail, France could also find its king in the Orleans line -- except that "the far right, a tiny but wealthy and influential group who still have vague ideas of overthrowing the republic, just haven't been comfortable with the Orleans people." At least that's the assessment of Anton Pregaldin, a history buff who's past president of both the St. Louis-Lyons Sister Cities Committee and the Société Française -- and when you read about Henri d'Orleans, a fabulously wealthy, liberal and libertine aristocrat who joined the Foreign Legion, dominated the gossip columns and sold off the royal legacy in bits and pieces, one can see his point. Henri died last summer, and in the bungalow he shared with his mistress, his children found nothing but a pair of bedroom slippers and six hankies monogrammed with the royal crest.

Shunning the infamous count, monarchists fastened several years ago on the "legitimist" heir, Louis de Bourbon. "He's tall, young, good-looking, clean-cut and wholesome, with no mistresses that we know of," explains Pregaldin. "He goes to church. He lives with his grandmother. He is a playboy -- but what he plays is hockey and basketball."

He's not the only pretender, though, and he's not the most popular. An inquiry to the European Royal History Journal produced a blistering e-mail calling Louis de Bourbon "a fantasy duc d'Anjou," his claim "a nasty sore point" among royalists and French legitimism an ultrarightist "fringe movement." It seems an earlier duc d'Anjou, King Felipe V of Spain, traded away the right to succeed in France in return for the crown of Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. "For the Royal Houses of Europe and a vast majority of Frenchmen," continued the editor, "the only Heir to the Royal House of France is HRH Prince Henri d'Orleans, Comte de Paris," eldest heir of the colorful father who bore the same name.

They're all related anyway; both Henri d'Orleans and Louis de Bourbon descend from Louis XIII, after whom the lineage forked. King Charles X, the last Bourbon king, was deposed in 1830 and replaced by the Orleans King Louis-Philippe, who was himself deposed in 1848, when Napoleon's nephew declared himself emperor. Thus four pretenders nonchalantly vie for the nonexistent throne: Henri, Louis, a Bonapartist pretender and yet another Bourbon pretender.

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