Belgium subdues divisions for a day to swear in king

BRUSSELS Sun Jul 21, 2013 5:46pm IST

1 of 5. King Philippe of Belgium takes the oath during a ceremony at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels July 21, 2013. Belgium is celebrating its National Day, which also marks the abdication of King Albert II of Belgium and the investiture of his eldest son Philippe.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent Kessler

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium swore in Philippe as its new king on Sunday after his father Albert II abdicated, subduing for a day questions about his ability to bring a divided country together and the power of the monarchy.

Philippe, 53, took his oath 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.

"ONE KING, TWO NATIONS"

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, but in scorching heat that caused some to faint. 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 soccer shirt, a flag and a wig in the red, yellow and black of the Belgian tricolor.

There were a few dissenting voices, including the N-VA party that wants Dutch-speaking Flanders to break away from Belgium and favors 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 lawmaker. 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 Sunday's pageantry. Far-right separatists Vlaams Belang said they would not attend the swearing in, but planned no protests.

However, Michiel Descheemaeker, a 21-year-old student who with friends was dressed in mediaeval costume, said he had come to protest against monarchies in general. "Kings belong in fairy tales and that's the only place," he told Reuters Television.

FLEMISH DOUBTS

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.

Neighboring Netherlands stripped its monarchs of involvement in politics last year. Queen Beatrix also stepped aside to allow her popular son Willem-Alexander to become king amid wild celebrations.

Philippe's investiture was tagged onto festivities already planned for July 21, 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, with a flag on her cheek. "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, I know too little about him."

(Editing by David Stamp/Mark Heinrich)

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