Belgium gets a new king, but politics cast shadow on festivities

2013-07-22T00:00:00Z Belgium gets a new king, but politics cast shadow on festivitiesThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

BRUSSELS - Belgians shouted "Long live the king" Sunday to welcome their new monarch to the throne on a sunny national holiday.

However, several legislators from northern Flanders boycotted King Philippe I's coronation, highlighting long-standing feuding between the nation's Dutch-speaking Flemings and Francophones - the biggest challenge the new monarch will face.

In his first speech as king shortly after his father King Albert II abdicated, Philippe made no attempt to paper over those cracks, instead casting the country's division between its 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones as one of its strengths.

"The wealth of our nation and our institutions consists in turning our diversity into a strength," he said after taking his oath of office at the country's parliament.

The ceremony capped a day of transition that started when Philippe's father, the 79-year-old Albert, signed away his rights as the kingdom's largely ceremonial ruler at the royal palace in the presence of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who holds the political power in this 183-year-old parliamentary democracy.

Less than two hours later, the nation got its seventh king when Philippe, 53, pledged to abide by Belgium's laws and constitution.

Big crowds of royalists and well-wishers cheered the royal family's every move Sunday, from a morning Catholic ceremony to an impromptu dusk balcony scene 13 hours later, with the once-timid Philippe kissing new Queen Mathilde several times under a full moon to usher in a night of celebration in the royal park.

"We have lived through a beautiful day," Philippe told thousands of evening revelers. "Let's be proud of our beautiful country."

Far from everybody in Belgium was happy with the new king.

One Flemish separatist group, the Flemish Interest party, boycotted the parliamentary ceremony, while the legislature's biggest party, the N-VA New Flemish Alliance, sent only a limited delegation.

"We are full-blooded democrats and the purest form of democracy is the republic," said Jan Jambon, the parliamentary leader of the N-VA alliance, which has surged to become the main opposition party seeking Flemish independence through democratic transition. It wants the new king not to have any role in coalition negotiations to form a new government, not be head of the armed forces and not sign any laws.

The small N-VA delegation highlighted one of the biggest challenges Philippe will face in his reign - how to remain relevant as a unitary symbol in a nation drifting apart between the prosperous northern Flemings and the economically struggling southern Francophones.

Briefly, at least, the differences took a back seat Sunday as the new royal couple, flanked by huge bouquets of white roses, lilies and gerbera, appeared for the midday official palace's balcony scene, cheered by some 10,000 well-wishers braving the relentless sun.

President Obama sent the new king congratulations.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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