Belgian king has task of healing divided nation

King Philippe and his wife, Mathilde, were cheered by crowds when they took to the balcony of the royal palace. Picture: Reuters

King Philippe and his wife, Mathilde, were cheered by crowds when they took to the balcony of the royal palace. Picture: Reuters

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King Philippe I has become Belgium’s seventh monarch on the fractured country’s national day, after his father Albert II abdicated as head of state.

Philippe, 53, took his oath yesterday in Belgium’s three official languages – Dutch, French and German – two-and-a-half weeks after King Albert, 79, announced that he would abdicate after 20 years on the throne.

Albert could be seen mouthing the words “Vive le roi” (Long live the king) at the swearing-in ceremony in parliament. Before signing a legislative act in the royal palace to step down, Albert thanked his wife, who wiped away tears, and said his son had all the qualities to serve the country well.

“My final recommendation to all those gathered here is to work without rest in keeping Belgium together,” he said. Philippe returned to the subject in his address to parliament, saying Belgium’s richness lay in its diversity.

Philippe is the seventh king of the 183-year-old country which is split across the middle. Many Dutch speakers seek greater autonomy for Flanders in the north and are wary of a monarchy seen to be rooted in the once powerful, but now poorer French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

“One king, two nations” was a headline in the French language business daily L’Echo.

Outside the palace, a crowd gathered in festive mood. Many shouted “vive le roi” and waved flags when Philippe and his wife Mathilde arrived on the balcony.

“The new king is a bit of history. That doesn’t happen very often so we wanted to be here,” said Xavier De Graef from French-speaking Liege, clad in a Belgian football shirt, a flag and a wig in the red, yellow and black of the Belgian tricolour.

There were a few dissenting voices, including the N-VA party that wants Dutch-speaking Flanders to break away from Belgium and favours a republic.

“It leaves me cold. It doesn’t make the hairs on my arm stand up. This is part of my job as a legislator. Otherwise it just passes me by,” said Jan Jambon, its parliamentary chief.

The party has been particularly vocal in recent weeks about the need to reform the monarchy but said it would not disturb the day’s pageantry.

However, Michiel Descheemaeker, a 21-year-old student who, with friends, said he had come to protest against monarchies in general. “Kings belong in fairy tales and that’s the only place,” he said.

Fewer than half of the people in Flanders believe Philippe will be a good king compared with two-thirds in Wallonia, according to an opinion poll.

Belgian kings do plenty of handshaking and ribbon-cutting, but also appoint mediators and potential government heads to steer coalition talks after elections – no small task in Belgium.

Philippe’s investiture was tagged onto festivities already planned for 21 July, which is Belgium’s national day and also marked 20 years of Albert’s reign.

The Belgian government, mindful of budget savings it has forced on the public, has said this should help cap costs.

Even royalist Belgians feel they know little about Philippe, who has appeared reserved in public, in contrast to his more outgoing father.

That included Brigitte Kittel, from Belgium’s 75,000-strong German-speaking community. “People in the German community like the king a lot,” she said. “We’re good Belgians. I don’t know what to think of the new king yet.”

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