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.

Why a second Bourbon? "There is a little problem in this boy's ancestry," confides Pregaldin, crooking his finger toward a paparazzi shot of Louis in a military cockpit. "There is this question about the legitimacy of the children of Queen Isabella II in the mid-19th century. If Queen Isabella's son, King Alfonso XII, was not in fact the son of her husband King Francisco de Bourbon ... then the Bourbon Parma family would be next."

"Obviously our organizations have no opinion about whether France should have a monarchy," he adds hastily.

As the prince's visit draws close, the history blurs, and anxieties center on how to address him -- and what to feed him -- and whether to take him to Ted Drewes, or Crown Candy Kitchen, or maybe barhopping, St. Louis-style. "It came up; we discussed it for months," admits Robert, "and we finally decided against it -- although if he wants to, it's not out of the question. He doesn't drink much wine," she adds, "and he doesn't eat a lot of red meat. He's quiet, an excellent listener, doesn't come in and take over the room. People are going to an enormous amount of trouble to create good food for him, even though he's told me the food is not important to him." Still, nobody's braving French haute cuisine, or Spanish either. "We're trying to keep an American theme," explains Robert. "But no Velveeta, and no Jell-o."

As for names, the proper address for the prince is "Monseigneur" -- literally, "my lord" -- which Robert fears St. Louisans will corrupt to "Monsignor," turning the prince into a priest. Sylvander, who started out practicing "Monsieur le Duc" because it seemed more reasonable than "Monsieur le Prince," does know the proper pronunciation but "just can't see, out on the trail, yelling, "My lord, watch out for that curve up ahead!"

If he doesn't, the French will hear about it: Famous journalist Stephane Bern is flying over, as is a cameraman for the TF1 TV station in Paris. Word of the prince's visit has been rippling through monarchist circles since early spring. "We've had calls and letters from people all over the country," says Robert, dazed by the royalist enthusiasm in our populist democracy. Some cherish monarchy's stability, traditions, romance and pageantry; others see it as the ultimate campaign-finance reform.

Meanwhile, a French count has called, offering to join the prince in St. Louis. "The prince is a one-man show; we can't suddenly plunk a count in there," murmurs Robert. "It's very delicate." Fortunately, she's a deft diplomat; she even consulted with the Orleans branch ahead of time. They graciously agreed that a visit from Louis de Bourbon seemed appropriate for St. Louis and asked only that it not be politicized -- a goal she heartily shares. The Alliance Française, after all, was started to promote the French language and culture after France's humiliation in the Franco-Prussian war, and the St. Louis Alliance, like all the others, receives a small subsidy from France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- which is part of the current republican government.

On the other hand, "the mission of the Alliance is to build appreciation of French culture," notes Robert, "and by hosting a prince we have accomplished this in a way we have never, ever accomplished in our 94-year history. It may come from a different political branch, but it's accomplished the mission."

Would the prince ascend to the throne if one were offered? "He will not talk about it," predicts Robert, "but in no way is he a pretender to any throne. We don't even say 'heir to the throne'; we always bill him as the descendant of St. Louis, here for a historic and cultural visit. It's his family he's trying to keep in the forefront, his Bourbon roots and heritage."

Those roots do, however, twine around quite a few crowns, and in that 1999 France-Amerique interview, Louis de Bourbon did claim a "position incontestable," saying that the fundamental laws of ancient France place his claim above partisan quarrels and competitions.

"I don't pretend to anything," he said in French. "I am."

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