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Belgium installs Philippe as king after his father, Albert, abdicates

BRUSSELS — King Philippe I became Belgium's seventh monarch during a national holiday on Sunday after his father Albert abdicated as the head of this fractured nation.

After he took the oath in the parliament filled with representatives of the 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones, 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 began at the royal palace, where Albert, 79, signed away his rights as the kingdom's largely ceremonial ruler 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.

Crowds of well-wishers cheered the royal family's every move Sunday, but far from everybody in Belgium was happy with the new king.

A Flemish separatist group, the Flemish Interest party, boycotted the parliamentary ceremony, while the legislature's biggest party, the 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 New Flemish Alliance, which has surged to become the main opposition party seeking Flemish independence through transition.

The Flemish parties' response highlighted one of the biggest challenges Philippe will face: how to remain relevant as a unitary symbol in a nation drifting apart between the northern Flemings and the southern Francophones.

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," King Philippe said. "Belgium's strength is precisely that we make room for our differences."

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

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 coincided with Belgium's national day celebrations, a military parade had already been planned.


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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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