John Lichfield: Oh yes, we are the great pretenders

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With French republican politics in a mess, and our own dear Queen visiting France, an obvious solution presents itself. Why not restore the French monarchy? It is not, of course, a new idea. Some French monarchists have never accepted the unpleasant events of 1789-1815 as anything but a foolish misunderstanding. Monarchs of one form or another - kings or emperors - have been installed on four occasions since the original Revolution. As recently as 1945, Charles de Gaulle toyed with the idea of annointing the Comte de Paris, the semi-official pretender to the throne, as "le Roi Henri VI".

Several new royalist movements have sprung up in recent years, supporting different claimants to the throne, or none. Most of these movements are romantic and harmless. At least one is more sinister.

On the romantic side, there is a café on the Rue de Rivoli that is plastered with pictures of a handsome, sporty, young man. He is a 30-year-old banker who loves horse-riding and ice-hockey and lives in Spain. His name is Louis de Bourbon, Duc de Anjou and Duc de Bourbon. According to the royalist-obsessive who owns the bar-tabac, he is also "Son Altesse Royal" [His Royal Highness] Louis XX.

Young Louis is not the only pretender to the French throne. Far from it. He is merely the acknowledged head of the legitimiste, or Bourbon, branch of the French royal family, descended from Louis XIV, the Sun King. There are also the Orléanistes, the Naundorffistes and the Bonapartistes.

The Bonapartistes make various claims for descendants from the emperor Napoleon but are not taken very seriously, even by the Bonaparte family.

The best-documented claim is that of the Orléanistes, descended directly from the last French king, Louis Philippe (1830-1848). Members of the Orléans family were invited to a state reception for the Queen at the Elysées Palace last night, the only French "royals" to meet her during her three-day visit.

The long-time Orléaniste pretender, the Comte de Paris, died in 1999. Before doing so, he had tarnished the royalist claim to represent conservative legitimacy by running off with his mistress and dispersing the family fortune. The old comte had inherited €200m (£138m). He left his heirs six monogrammed napkins. The new comte - and owner of the napkins - is Prince Henri d'Orléans (aka Henri VII), aged 70.

A more active, and unsettling, figure is his son, the 38-year-old "dauphin", Prince Jean de Bourbon-Orléans, Duc de Vendôme. "Prince Jean" is mixed up with a fundamentalist Catholic, royalist movement, Restauration National (RN), which was launched three years ago. RN claims its inspiration from Action Directe, a proto-fascist, royalist movement from the first half of the last century that campaigned against the "Anti-France" tendency, which it defined as "Jews, freemasons, protestants and foreigners". In recent speeches to the movement, Prince Jean describes himself as a "Christian prince" who will fight to recreate a "Christian France" built on "very Christian values".

The notion of constitutional monarchy - above partisan politics and representing all strands of the nation - does not yet seem to have penetrated to this end of the French royal family.

The Naundorffiste claimant - who likes to be called "His Royal Highness Charles Louis Edmond de Bourbon" - lives in a modest house in the western Paris suburbs. He insists he is descended from Louis XVII, the uncrowned son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. According to most historians, the prince died in prison in wretched circumstances in 1795, aged 10. According to Charles Bourbon, the prince escaped, changed his name to Naundorff and went to live in the Netherlands.

Into his world, a small, dark object has fallen: an embalmed child's heart that has been the subject of controversy for two centuries has been finally identified as that of the young dauphin Louis. The identification - from DNA comparison with a lock of Marie-Antoinette's hair - atomises the never substantial Naundorffiste claim.

The French state, wickedly Republican though it is, has agreed to allow the boy's heart to be interred formally on 8 June at the Basilique de Saint Denis, near Paris, alongside the remains of his mother and father, the executed king and queen. Supporters and members of the Orléanistes and legitimistes will put aside their differences and turn out in strength for what promises to be the biggest royalist jamboree in France for many years.

Rapping with the president

Even before the disaster of the regional elections, President Chirac told visitors he was feeling cut off from ordinary people, especially the young. He revealed he had started listening to Fun Radio, one of the raunchiest French pop music stations, which specialises in rap written in a mixture of English, French and the impenetrable, reversing slang of the poor, inner-city suburbs.

"I made myself listen to it for 10 days in a row. You should do it. It's very interesting," Le Monde reported him as saying. "At the start, I could only under- stand one word in two." The President should also try out the Fun Radio website, which has wonderful special offers such as: "Gagne 'Pump It Up', le single de Danzel."

None too clever

Here is an untrue story circulating in Paris about the royal visit.

President Chirac asked the Queen how she judged the cleverness of prime ministers. Her Majesty telephoned Tony Blair on her mobile. "Tony," she said. "If a person is the child of your mother and father but is not your brother or sister, who is it?" "Simple," said Blair. "It's me."

President Chirac, impressed, rang his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and put the same riddle. "I'll get back to you," Raffarin said. The prime minister immediately asked the clever, ambitious finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. "Simple," said Sarkozy. "It's me."

Raffarin, delighted, rang the President. "I have the answer," he said. "It's Sarkozy."

"No, you dummy," thundered Chirac. "It's Tony Blair."