The short answer is His Royal Highness the Count of Paris, titular Jean IV of France.
To understand this, there needs to be an explanation of history and law.
The Fundamental Laws
Legitimate succession to the French throne is based upon the Fundamental Laws of the Kingdom of France, which are:
1. Hereditary succession. The throne passes by hereditary succession. This principle began when King of the Franks Hugh Capet had his son Robert II crowned during his lifetime. This was to prevent succession disputes. Note: this is limited to legitimate children.
2. Primogeniture. The throne passes by primogeniture. This principle was strengthened by Robert II when he had his eldest son Henri I crowned rather than his younger son Robert.
3. Masculinity. The throne was limited to men in 1316 when Philip V was chosen over Joan, who became Queen of Navarre. This principle would become known as Salic law after the rediscovery of the Lex Salica in the early 15th century.
4. Male collaterality. The throne can only pass in the male line. This was used by Philip VI to counter the claim of Edward III of England, son of Queen Isabella (the She-Wolf of France). It was decided that a woman could not pass on a claim she did not have. This principle became equated with the Salic law. Also: one cannot pass on a right one does not have.
5. Continuity of the Crown. As soon as the king dies, the next in line is automatically king, regardless of any coronation. This began in 1270 when Philip III dated the start of his reign right after the death of his father rather than his coronation. This was strengthened in the early 15th century when Charles VI declared that his successor would become king immediately upon his death.
6. Inalienability of the Crown (or unavailability of the Crown). The crown is not the property of the king. The king cannot appoint his successor, abdicate, or renounce the throne. This rule came into being to negate the Treaty of Troyes, which would have removed Charles VII from the succession and given the throne to Henry VI of England.
7. The King must be French. There is not a general date for this rule. It appears in the 16th century after the Hundred Years’ War and was confirmed as a pre-existing rule by the Judgment of Le Maistre of 1593, which states that giving the crown to a foreigner was “contrary to the Salic law and the other fundamental times of the state.” Jurists of the 16th century equated this with the Salic law, as indicated in the quote above.
8. Catholicism. The king must be Catholic. This was confirmed or established by the aforementioned Judgment of Le Maistre of 1593. After announcing his intention to convert to Catholicism, the Parlement of Paris issued the judgment to confirm Henri IV’s right to be king and denying the throne to other claimants because of their foreign nature.
Rule number 7 is the most important in the dispute over the French throne. Anjouists, supporters of so-called “Duke of Anjou,” claim that the Spanish Bourbons are “French by blood,” are “automatically French,” or are of the “Blood of France.”
All of these claims are false and need to be understood from a historical and legal perspective.
While the rules making up the Fundamental Laws were developed over time, the concept of “Fundamental Laws” themselves only emerged in the 16th century. This was a response to the Hundred Years’ War, a war of succession between the French Valois and the English Plantagenets.
The French Valois were victorious. After this, French jurists interpreted and justified the Salic law as keeping France out of “Foreign hands.”
First, there is the writing of the magistrate Pierre de Belloy stating that the purpose of the Salic law was not to exclude women because of any “imbecility,” which he said was often found in men, but to keep France out of “foreign hands.”
There is a similar opinion from Claude de Seyssel:
And the first specialty that I find good there is that the kingdom goes by male succession, without being able to fall into the hands of a woman, according to the law that the French call “salic”, which is a very good thing. Because, falling in a feminine line, it comes into the hands and power [it can come into power] of a man of strange nation, which is pernicious and dangerous thing: yet that which comes from such a strange nation [the one who comes from strange nation] is other food and condition and has other mores, other language and other way of living than those of the country where it comes to dominate.
In 1573, Charles IX, in his Declaration to preserve the rights of Henri III (by preserving his French status), declared that foreigners were “incapable of all succession” and would be struck “at death by the right of aubaine.”
In 1593, this rule is confirmed with the Arrêt le Maistre:
…said court declares all treaties made and to be made hereafter for the establishment of a foreign prince and princess of null effect and value, as done to the prejudice of the Salic law and other fundamental laws of the state.
That the fundamental laws of this kingdom be kept and the judgments given by the said court for the declaration of a Catholic and French king executed; and that it is necessary to employ the authority which has been committed to him to prevent that, under pretext of religion, be transferred in foreign hands against the laws of the kingdom…
It is important to note how putting a foreigner on the throne is against the Salic law. This means it is impossible for the Salic law to call a foreigner to the throne.
What makes one French?
That is the fundamental question. At the time of Philip of Anjou (future Felipe V of Spain), the standard for determining who was French was jus soli, to be born on French soil (French Crownlands), under the dominion of a loyal French vassal, or in a territory considered “naturally French.”
It is also important to note that permanently leaving France (“without spirit of return”) could cause a man to be considered foreign.
Initially, Felipe V was granted letters patent to confirm his succession rights and those of his descendants by preserving their French status. These letters were revoked in 1713 (ibid.).
Thus, by permanently leaving France and being born in Spain, the Spanish Bourbons had ceased being French, excluding them from the line of succession.
There was also no automatic right to be “French by blood” (jus sanguinis) at that time. A child born abroad to French parents was required to have letters of naturalness, otherwise they would be considered foreign. We discuss this further in The Unionist Case (H-2).
French Senior Agnate
In 1883, the Count of Chambord (de jure Henri V of France) died without issue. Thus began the dispute between the Spanish Bourbons, represented by the Spanish Count of Montizon (de jure Jean III of Spain), and the French Philippe d’Orleans, Count of Paris.
The Count of Montizon was a Spaniard born of Spaniards, having long since forfeited their rights to the French throne. Thus, headship of the Royal House of France passed to Prince Philippe d’Orleans and the House of Orleans.
Since then, the House of Orleans has remained the Royal House of France.
Click here for the de jure succession to the French throne since Louis XVI.