Originally, the members of the royal house of France could bear the title of Prince but over time it was also assumed by the highest members of nobility. Also, the principalities located within the borders of France could use that title. As with most titles of nobility there were several sub-categories.
Princes: males in the immediate family of the king. These included his sons, brothers and the dauphin's sons. These were known as the Children of France and were addressed as "Royal Highness".
Princes of the Blood: these were male descendants of the younger sons of the king and his brothers. The highest-ranking male was referred to as the First Prince of the Blood; he was immediately behind the princes in the succession.
An edict from 1576 stated that those princes and princes of the blood who were also peers took precedence over all other peers. This was further established in 1711 when another edict enhanced the position of the princes. It granted the princes and princes of the blood precedence over all other peers - even if those princes were not peers themselves.
The Duc & Duchesse
Three types of duchies existed during the ancien régime: the Duché-Paire, the Duché-Hereditaire and the Duché à Brevèt.
Duché Ordinaire: succession only through male heirs
Duché Mâle et Femel: succession primarily through male heirs although should the male line fail it continued through the female
Duché Femel: created for females and their descendants
The Duché-Paire carried a peerage with it; it was possible to lose a peerage without losing the title of Duc. The Duché-Hereditaire was a tad more complicated. Three sub-categories existed within such a duchy:
The final one - Duché à Brevèt - did not truly come into use until the reign of Louis XIV. It did not infer any succession on the heirs of the holder as the title was merely a dignity. Once the holder died the title would fall into disuse.
The original way of creating a duchy was by submitting it the Parlement of Paris within a year. Once the Parlement had registered the duchy it moved to the Cour des Comptes. However, before the age of true absolutism the Parlement could refuse to make a duchy hereditary; in that case it would lapse on the death of the holder.
The remaining titles had originally been intended to be of assistance to the ducs. From the Roman era a duke (dux) was typically a military leader who had control over a specific area. In the centuries following the Roman Empire the marquis, comte and vicomte were all a part of a chain of command. Their primary jobs were to assist their superiors in the administration of their lands.
By the time Louis XIV ascended the throne that was not quite the case any longer. The nobility had grown into a class of its own with power enough to rival that of the king. Over time the nobility were no longer intended to assist in the running of a particular area but were connected to their own lands.
The Marquis & Marquise
The edicts of Henri III and Charles IX dictated that a marquisate was to be made up of three baronies and six chatellenies. Originally, a marquis was - like a duke - a military commander over a certain area. These areas were usually border areas; hence the name which was derived from marshes (marquis in French, margrave in English). When the marquis' still exercised military power they had a good claim to be ranked higher than a count. This claim was based on the fact that a marquis had both military and judicial power spanning several counties. Both Louis XIV and Louis XV preferred to grant this title to their mistresses; although some were granted the honour of the title of duchesse most became marquises. Think for example of the Marquise de Pompadour. Compared to the other titles it was bestowed on women in general more often. A holder would usually obtain the title by letters patent issued by the king.
The Comte & Comtesse
The same edicts of the previously mentioned kings also described how a county was made up. It could either consist of two baronies and three chatellenies or one barony and six chatellenies. During the ancien regime the dignity associated with this title depended on how far back the title traced. Some were used by the royal family; Louis XIV made one of his legitimised sons by Madame de Montespan the Comte de Toulouse.
The Vicomte & Vicomtesse
The otherwise meticulous edicts does not mention how a vicounty is to be erected; no vicomte ever achieved the honour of being made a peer. A vicomte was either a judicial officer of a marquis or a count or he was a minor lord of a vicounty.