PHILIPPE ASCENDED THE throne of Belgium as its seventh king earlier amid national day celebrations marked by hopes the fragile nation can remain united.
“I swear to abide by the constitution and the laws of the Belgian people,” Philippe, 53, and dressed in full military uniform, said in the country’s three languages – French, Flemish and German.
“I am aware of the responsibilities weighing on my shoulders,” he added, after the abdication of his father Albert II after 20 years at the helm of the linguistically-split country at the heart of Europe.
Albert, 79, abdicated in favour of his eldest son at a solemn ceremony in the royal palace’s chandelier-laden throne room after saying he felt too old and too fragile to continue to reign.
Royal family members Queen Paola, King Albert II, Prince Philippe and his wife Princess Mathilde attend a church service at the St. Gudule cathedral in Brussels to watch Philippe become the country’s seventh monarch. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
In his last speech, Albert reiterated a call to the country’s leaders “to work tirelessly in favour of Belgium’s cohesion”.
His voice breaking with emotion, Albert turned to his wife of 54 years, Queen Paola, to say: “As for the queen who constantly supported me in my task I would simply like to tell her ‘thank you’.
“A big kiss”, he added as she shed a tear and the audience of political leaders and other dignitaries broke into a long round of applause.
Under sunny skies and a light summer breeze, flags fluttered across Brussels as the day of pageantry began with a thanksgiving mass in the cathedral and crowds lined outside shouted “Long Live the King”.
Supporters hold balloons in the Belgian colors. (AP Photo/Ezequiel Scagnetti)
The medieval cathedral of Saint Michael and Gudula was packed with Belgian government and other dignitaries, but there were no foreign guests in attendance.
But worries persist that the shy and often awkward prince Philippe may lack the political skills of his father to maintain unity in a nation deeply divided between its Flemish- and French-speaking halves.
Mathilde, an outgoing 40-year-old who will be Belgium’s first home-grown queen, is seen as his best asset in the couple’s campaign to win the hearts of their 11.5 million people.
The monarchy more often than not is viewed as a rare symbol of Belgium’s unity, along with its iconic fries and the national football team.
But while the French-speakers of the south remain largely royalist, Flemish-speaking Flanders, home to 60 per cent of the population, has cooled.