Belgium put on a rare show of flag-waving patriotism to mark the departure of one king and the arrival of another, and to temporarily forget the regional tensions that gnaw at the country’s unity.
Crowds wearing the national colors of black, yellow and red watched from the Brussels royal park as Albert II, 79, abdicated and his son Philippe was installed in the federal parliament as the seventh king since Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands in 1830.
“Let us together give a new elan and sense of enthusiasm to our country,” Philippe, 53, said in French, calling his oath a “solemn promise.” The new king took his oath in the nation’s three official languages -- French, Dutch and German.
Shouts of “Vive le roi” rang out and a 101-gun salute sounded as Philippe and the new queen, Mathilde, boarded an open-topped limousine with the license plate number 1 for a horse-drawn escort to the palace. It was a coming-together moment for the country of 11 million, which sits astride Europe’s economic and cultural faultlines and saw Albert take an active role mediating between the Flemish and Walloon regions during his last years on the throne.
At the palace, the royal couple joined their four children and a clutch of regally bred relatives for photos on the balcony as the crowd drank high-alcohol beers and ate crispy, double-cooked French fries amid un-Belgian temperatures approaching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
Citizens who, like a recent prime minister, didn’t know the national anthem toted newspaper fold-outs with the words in the three official languages.
“Belgium is a tremendous country where life is good,” Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told the crowd.
The quirkier side of Belgium, which gave the world the saxophone, surrealism and the Smurfs, was in full flourish. Manneken-Pis, a landmark Brussels statue of a small boy answering nature’s call, marked the occasion by donning the uniform of the Belgian revolutionaries who rebelled against Dutch rule in 1830. The military theme will be reprised more seriously later, with a parade and Belgian air force fly-by, capped by fireworks.
Off-key notes were sounded by a few representatives and senators from the richer northern region of Flanders, who boycotted the inauguration ceremony to make their case for the dissolution of Belgium, or at least of the monarchy.
In keeping with the monarchy’s demure nature, the ceremony was an oath-taking, not a coronation. The only crowns in evidence were inflatable ones in the national tricolor, sported by celebrants of all ages in the streets ringing the palace. Nor does the new constitutional monarch get to keep his throne: the gilt chair Philippe occupied during the investiture won’t be used again during his reign.
Belgium’s kings -- in an all-male line tracing back to Leopold I, of Bavarian stock -- play a more prominent role in political life than other European royals, as Albert demonstrated during the record 541-day stalemate that left the country without a government after the 2010 election.
Albert oversaw eight attempts to break the deadlock, which ended in December 2011 with the setup of a six-party coalition headed by Di Rupo, the first native French speaker to run Belgium since the 1970s.
Today’s formalities began with Albert signing the abdication act before an audience of 250 government officials at the palace. He urged them to “work unremittingly for the cohesion of Belgium.”
While Albert followed Pope Benedict XVI and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to extend this year’s trend of elder European worthies quitting jobs-for-life, his abdication wasn’t a first for Belgium.
Belgium’s king during World War II, Leopold III, was forced out in 1951 amid charges that he was too amicably disposed to the German occupiers. In an example of the political dexterity that has held Belgium together, his successor, Baudouin, stepped aside for 24 hours in 1990 to avoid responsibility for a law liberalizing abortion.
Philippe -- spelled Filip in Dutch -- has 10 months to prepare for the next political test, the elections of May 2014. Polls show the most popular party in Flanders continues to be the N-VA, which wants to gradually break the country in two.
Philippe’s wife, the former Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz, 40, became Belgium’s first native-born queen consort. Thanks to a 1991 law that ended primogeniture, the couple’s eldest daughter, 11-year-old Elisabeth, is now in line to become the nation’s first female monarch, unless the separatists have their way.