The Succession to the French throne


Historical background

France, which emerged as a fragment of Charlemagne's empire in the 9th century, was a monarchy until September 22, 1792, ruled from 987 by Hughes "Capet" and his male-line descendants (from 1589, the Bourbons). France became a kingdom again in April 1814, under the restored Bourbon dynasty. In August 1830, king Charles X was overthrown and replaced by his cousin Louis-Philippe Ier, himself overthrown in 1848. France has not had a king since 1848.

French succession laws

French succession laws were never written down until the first written constitution, that of September 1791, which was in force for one year only. The Charter of 1814, which served as constitution for the restored monarchy (and the "July monarchy" of Louis-Philippe until 1848), did not specify the succession law.

As in Britain, the French constitution before 1791 was based on custom. The laws of succession to the throne evolved over a very long period of time. The throne itself became hereditary during the 11th and 12th centuries. Succession was restricted to male line descent in the 14th century. The "statutory" theory of the succession to the throne was stated in the 15th century. But it is only in the 16th century, particularly during the civil wars of 1560-95, that political theorists and jurists began debating the succession laws in earnest, and even speak of "fundamental laws of the kingdom," of which the laws governing succession.

Ultimately, my plan is to present the various components of the French succession laws in their historical context. At present, the following is available:

The modern dispute over the French succession

There hasn't been a king in France since 1848, but that doesn't prevent people from arguing over who ought to be king if there were one, or who best represents the historical legacy of the monarchy.

The dispute in a nutshell

The Revolution of 1830 created a split between "legitimists" who maintained allegiance to the overthrown Charles X and his descendants (extinct in 1883), and "orleanists" who supported the regime of Louis-Philippe (duc d'Orléans until his accession). When the issue of Charles X became extinct in 1883, another split emerged, due to the following genealogical fact. Charles X was descended from Louis XIV; Louis-Philippe was descended from Louis XIV's only brother. There are other descendants of Louis XIV, namely all the Bourbons issued from Louis XIV's grandson Philippe who became king Felipe V of Spain. As part of the treaties of Utrecht that put an end to the War of Spansih Succession in 1713, the latter renounced for himself and his descendants any claims to the French throne. Under one interpretation of the French succession law, all the descendants of Felipe V are excluded from the throne, hence the issue of Louis-Philippe became rightful claimants in 1883. Under the other interpretation, the descendants of Felipe V are not excluded, and their senior male became the rightful claimant in 1883.

The dispute (aside from political and emotional factors which are often the dominant ones) hinges on legal interpretations of the succession laws.

  • The legitimist position is that the succession to the throne is dictated by centuries-old custom, and cannot be altered by anyone: thus, there is no legal way that the male-line, legitimate, Catholic issue of a grandson of Louis XIV could be excluded.
  • The orleanist position relies on two distinct arguments:
    1. the succession laws could be modified, and were modified repeatedly over time, the exclusion of Felipe V's descendants being one such modification;
    2. the succession laws required claimants to be French nationals, and none of Felipe V's descendants in 1883 were.

The legal issues raised in the dispute

Thus, some of the legal issues that emerge are the following:

  • Could Felipe V renounce
    • his rights?
    • those of his descendants?
  • Was the treaty of Utrecht valid:
    • absolutely?
    • conditionally, and if so, were the conditions fulfilled?
  • Is the Utrecht treaty still valid? In particular, its aim of preventing a personal union of the French and Spanish monarchies still meaningful?
  • Did Felipe V mean his renunciations? Does it matter whether he did or not?
  • Were French succession laws set forever or could they change? If so, how?
  • Could the Utrecht treaty modify French law? Did it?
  • Were the renunciations ever doubted in France? Were they ever explicitly repudiated? In particular, when the 1791 constitution was written, how was the matter addressed?
  • Are there any indications, official or otherwise, that Felipe V and his descendants were treated as dynasts in France? Would such indications matter?
  • Felipe V's renunciation came shortly before he introduced the Salic law in Spain; the Salic law was repealed in 1830: did that change anything to the validity or applicability of the renunciations?
  • Does the fact that Louis-Philippe "stole" the throne from Charles X in 1830 change anything? Did he steal the throne? More generally, has the Orléans branch done anything to void its claims in law?
  • Was there a nationality requirement? What was citizenship law in France at the time? Could one lose one's rights to the throne by renouncing French citizenship?

The legal issues raised in the dispute

Many of the issues raised by the dispute go beyond purely legal matters. They are of an emotional and political nature. During the late 18th century, the duc d'Orléans was notorious for his liberal and democratic inclinations; he became an active politician in the early stages of the French Revolution as a member of the Constituent Assembly. Philippe Égalité (as he became known in 1792; see details here) was elected to the National Convention in September 1792, voted to abolish the monarchy, sat in judgment of Louis XVI, voted to find him guilty and voted the death penalty. As the Revolution became more radical, he fell victim to its murderous politics and was himself tried and executed in late 1793. The behavior of Philippe Égalité is held by many legitimists against his descendants.

Egalité's vote, Jan 16 1793
Philippe Egalité's vote, Jan 16 1793. From the minutes of the National Convention, session of 16-17 Jan 1793, recording each representative's vote. Next to his name ("L.J. Égalité") are the words "death ("la mort").
Source: France, Archives Nationales, ARCHIM image database, call number AE/II/1336bis.

To make things worse, it was his son, Louis-Philippe, who became "king of the French" eight days after Charles X abdicated and appointed him lieutenant-general of the kingdom. Legitimists regarded the behavior of the son as treasonous and nearly as infamous as that of the father. That behavior, too, is held by them against his descendants.

The political dimensions of the dispute revolve around the fact that, as Louis XVI and his distant cousin the duc d'Orléans represented the absolutist versus the constitutional views of monarchism in the early stages of the Revolution, similarly, Charles X lost his throne because of his absolutist view of the monarchy (incompatible with the Charter of 1814, under which he was supposed to operate), whereas Louis-Philippe represented the 19th century constitutional view of monarchy, close to the British view. Legitimism, by and large, remained a party strongly tied to nostalgia for pre-1789 France, attached to central authority, tradition, the Catholic church, the supremacy of a God-given dynasty, and distrust for democracy. There are strong parallels with Carlism (which developped at the same time in Spain), where a certain view of the Spanish succession laws (Carlism, negating the repeal of the Salic law in 1830) was in fact accompanied by political views inclined to tradition, strong monarchical power and the Catholic church. The difference with Spain is that monarchy remained the actual regime, and to be a monarchist in Spain can simply mean attachment to the current constitutional arrangement, which is virtually free of any political implication. In France, however, monarchism of the legitimist or orleanist variety has remained a "party" among others (always out of power), and increasingly attractive only to a certain segment of the political spectrum.

Notes and documents on the dispute

As I have yet to write a synthetic piece on the dispute, I present here in the meantime essays, notes and documents that I have accumulated over time.

For practical purposes, the labels "legitimists" and "orleanists", which properly belong to the context of French politics between 1830 and 1883, have been retained to designate the supporters of the Spanish line and the Orléans line, respectively.

These pages are under construction. The main lines of the dispute were presented in exchange of views that took place between Guy Sainty and me on the newsgroup in September 1996 (Guy holding the legitimist view and I presenting the orleanist view). My thinking on the subject has evolved over time, and I intend to offer a better presentation of the orleanist case. In the meantime, relevant documents are presented here.

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François Velde

Last modified: Mar 03, 2005