In early November 1944 French soldiers got into a firefight somewhere near Toulouse. They rounded up a gang of armed men. One of them, apparently the leader, had been hit in the shoulder. The French soldiers suspected the men had come over the border from Spain.
There was a lot of traffic through the mountains: Nazis on the run, escaping collaborators, smugglers, members of far-right Maquis Blanc bands trying to reconquer France for the Germans. The soldiers dragged their prisoners up to the nearest provisional government outpost and let the politicians sort it out.
The wounded man had slicked-back hair and a thin moustache. He spoke elegant French. The interrogators soon discovered he was Henri, Comte de Paris and heir presumptive to the throne. Royalists regarded him as the King of France.
France hadn’t had a monarch since Napoléon III was overthrown in 1870. There was even a law on the statute books banning claimants to the throne entering the country. But here was Henri, bleeding from a shoulder wound and fresh from stalking around the recently liberated south. Provisional authorities had linked his men to a series of bomb explosions in Bordeaux that had killed a few soldiers, and a Maquis Blanc plot to merge the district with Francoist Spain across the border. There was talk of a coup in Paris.
The provisional authorities didn’t know what to do with him. Whose side was he on?
The man in custody had been brought up in aristocratic style. Huge estates in Spanish Morocco and Belgium. A succession of governesses and instructors. He learned estate management, language lessons, protocol. His father Jean, Duc de Guise became heir presumptive to the throne in 1924 and suddenly monarchists across Europe were hailing Henri as the new dauphin.
The Duc died in 1940 and left Henri a fortune in cash and property. The new presumptive heir to the throne spent lots of it trying to take power in France. When the Germans invaded he arranged meetings about a restoration with Vichy collaborators and the anti-Semitic royalists of Action Française. But no-one with any power took Henri seriously. Instead, the Vichy government offered him a job as Minister of Food. He refused.
Other Sides of the Coin
In early November 1942 the Allies took North Africa. French Algeria swapped sides and put former collaborator Admiral Darlan in charge. Not everyone was happy about one of the Vichy mob giving orders. A royalist intelligence officer and resistance leader called Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie saw an opportunity to put the Comte de Paris back on the throne.
He arranged for Henri to be smuggled out of France to an apartment in Algiers. D’Astier had plans for a coup in Algeria that would put Henri in charge, get rid of Darlan, and erode authority from both the Vichy government and staunchly Republican Charles de Gaulle in London. D’Astier had a militia group called the Corps African Franc to assist in the plot.
Henri seems to have agreed but the coup plan was discovered by both Darlan and America’s General Eisenhower. Henri was expelled. In December, Darlan was assassinated by a young member of D’Astier’s Corps African Franc.
The heir presumptive was in Francoist Spain by this time, living in Pamplona with the reactionary monarchists of Spanish Carlism. Henri was popular among the Basques on both sides of the border, and with French conservatives. He formed a militia group which made occasional patrols into Nazi-occupied France, making contacts with locals and building up a royalist network.
When the Allies drove the Germans out in the summer of 1944, Henri saw his chance to take advantage of the chaos. Different kinds of groups were crawling over the southern mountains, from communists to admirers of De Gaulle. A Maquis Blanc run by a colonel loyal to Henri emerged. The colonel wanted to merge the area with Francoist Spain.
‘Toulouse was the souk for all sorts of adventurers,’ said a resistance fighter.
Henri made more incursions into France. He had followers as far north as Brittany. Royalists, conservatives, and collaborators fleeing retribution all signed up. Even a few former members of the resistance who didn’t like the communist influence in the new provisional government showed an interest.
His supporters were keen to emphasise that their king’s Maquis Blanc had no connection with the fascist stay-behind units roaming the countryside. The provisional government didn’t feel like arguing the difference and ordered the royalist movement crushed.
Many of Henri’s followers were grabbed in a swoop on Bayonne that ended with a gunfight and the would-be king shot in the shoulder. Everyone was in custody awaiting interrogation when Henri escaped, probably with the help of officials who saw trouble ahead if he went to jail. He spent the rest of his life denying he had ever entered southern France. The principality of Andorra was occupied soon after Henri’s escape, some thought because his militia had used it to access French territory.
Henri was allowed to return to France in 1950 when the law banning heirs to the throne was changed. He spent the rest of a long life spending money and squabbling with his family and followers. He died of cancer in 1999 and left his heirs with nothing.
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