- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

BRUSSELS (AP) - It’s an old story _ a father fighting with his son _ but this one involves a king and a prince, racy headlines, palace intrigue and the future of the monarchy itself.

Juicy stuff for Belgium’s once-placid royals.

The wrath of King Albert II was provoked when his youngest son, the 47-year-old Prince Laurent visited Congo, Belgium’s former colony, last month against the wishes of both his father and the Belgian government.

The prince inflamed the situation further Tuesday when his adviser told Humo magazine that the palace is giving free rein to “destructive forces” and playing “a bizarre role” in disputes surrounding the monarchy _ at a time when the need for the monarchy itself is being questioned.

A palace official retorted that the king wouldn’t react to “delusions” that only obscure the fact that the prince should never have gone to Congo. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to standing rules.

As third child of the king, Laurent has no realistic chance of ever taking the throne. But never have family affairs spilled out into the open like this _ and it comes as the kingdom is going through political turmoil between its 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and its 4.5 million Francophones.

The monarchy is one of the last symbols of unity in the increasingly divided country.

Still, for some the royal brouhaha has been a welcome respite from Belgium’s tedious political negotiations, which have left the nation without an acting government for almost a year as both sides seek more autonomy.

“War in the Palace,” headlined the usually understated De Standaard newspaper. “Open warfare in Laken,” added the De Morgen paper, referring to the king’s leafy, secluded palace on the outskirts of Brussels.

There long had been rumors about parental displeasure with youngest son Laurent _ dubbed “enfant terrible” in the media for his long tradition of courting controversy _ either for his speedy driving, love of expensive furniture, former romantic connections and, now, unauthorized travel.

Prime Minister Yves Leterme lashed out at the prince in parliament last week, saying he “disregarded his obligations” by traveling there despite the clear objections of the government and his father. What made matters worse is that Laurent also had a brief meeting with President Joseph Kabila without any diplomatic oversight. Belgium has had fraught relations with Congo after a bloody and discriminatory colonial rule.

Leterme told the prince to either abide by government demands or forsake his annual stipend of around euro300,000 ($400,000) in the future _ about the same amount that President Barack Obama earns.

Laurent said he would not give up his stipend and said there was nothing wrong with traveling to Congo to study deforestation. His adviser, Pierre Legros, told Humo that it all pointed to “a campaign to destroy the prince.”

In part, the dispute is over what role princes should have. Laurent’s critics say several of the prince’s contacts are highly political and totally unbecoming figures in a nation where the king is little more than a figurehead.

The prince’s defenders say the prince is a man now with his own ideas.

“They are treating him as a kid in an incredible way,” Legros said. “He is doomed to stay a 12-year old for the rest of his days.”

Under King Baudouin, Albert’s predecessor, the only major royal scandal was Baudouin’s refusal to sign an abortion law, which forced him off the throne for a day. King Albert, who succeeded his brother in 1993, saw his own image darkened when he had to acknowledge a dozen years ago that he had an out-of-wedlock daughter.

Otherwise Belgium’s royals have largely faded into the background, even in society magazines.

The sudden upsurge now is to the detriment of the royal family itself, Laurent’s adviser Legros says.

“The Palace is playing a bizarre role in this case. It gives destructive forces free rein, stresses criticism and, because of this, shoots itself in the foot,” he told Humo magazine.

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