Philippe becomes Belgian king as Albert abdicates

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Crown Prince Philippe became Belgium’s seventh monarch on Sunday’s National Day after his father, King Albert II, abdicated as the head of this fractured nation.

After he took the oath at the Parliament filled with representatives of the 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million French-speaking Walloons, King Philippe insisted that “the wealth of our nation and our institutions consists in turning our diversity into a strength.”

The ceremony capped a day of transition that started when Philippe’s 79-year-old father 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 a new king when Philippe, 53, pledged to abide by Belgium’s laws and constitution.

While crowds of well-wishers cheered the royal family’s every move Sunday, 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 without its leader, Bart De Wever.

“We are full-blooded democrats, and the purest form of democracy is the republic,” said Jan Jambon, the parliamentary leader of the party, which has surged to become the main opposition party seeking Flemish independence through transition.

Their absence also highlighted one of the biggest challenges Philippe will face in his reign — how to remain relevant as a unifying symbol in a nation ever more drifting apart between the northern Flemings and the southern Walloons.

Philippe made no attempt to paper over those cracks, instead casting the country’s division as one of its strengths.

“Time and again we find the balance between unity and diversity,” Philippe said. “Belgium’s strength is precisely that we make room for our differences.”

Unlike a disturbance during the oath-taking by King Albert 20 years ago, when one legislator shouted, “Long live the European Republic!” Sunday’s ceremony in the packed legislature was flawless, with Albert and Philippe’s wife, Mathilde, looking on as he confidently took the oath.

Philippe long has been contested as a worthy successor of Albert, but after years of wooden and timid public performances, the silver-haired, bespectacled monarch came over as confident and pressure-proof.

Belgium is modernizing itself, and it gives me joy,” Albert said. In a rare show of public affection for his son, the two embraced warmly when Albert signed away his rights as the kingdom’s largely ceremonial ruler at the Royal Palace.

There, under crystal chandeliers in a gilded hall, Mr. Di Rupo called Albert “a great head of state” and told the outgoing king, “You are closing an important page in the history of our country.”

Albert announced his abdication plans less than three weeks ago, so there was little time to turn the occasion into a huge international event. No foreign royals were at the ceremony. Since the royal transition coincides with Belgium’s National Day celebrations, a military parade had already been planned.

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