Royal wedding captivates Europe

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Dutch royal wedding is set to captivate Europe's population, but how well will the increasingly-popular Maxima Zorreguieta adjust to palace life? Is she the next Princess Diana?

Once again, Europe is being treated to the storybook spectacle of a royal wedding: queens and princesses in regal finery, gilded carriages clattering over cobbled canal-side streets, adoring crowds paying tribute to their sovereign.

Still, a royal marriage isn't what it used to be. Rather than a conjunction of blueblood families or an alliance of powers, most royal couples today look disappointingly like ordinary people.

On Saturday, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, the 34-year-old Prince of Orange and heir to the Dutch throne, weds Maxima Zorreguieta, 30, an Argentinean beauty who has so captivated the nation that she outshines her betrothed, the future king.

Maxima — as she is known to the Dutch — is the daughter of a wealthy Argentinean rancher and businessman whose disastrous turn to politics during Argentina's repressive dictatorship of Jorge Videla cast a pall over the royal romance.

Her lack of aristocratic bloodline befits the Netherlands, where people take pride in being average and avoid standing out. Members of the royal family are treated in the Netherlands more like local celebrities or sports heroes — honoured rather than revered, listened to rather than obeyed, first among equals.

The Netherlands has been ruled by councillors longer than by kings. Its monarchy was something of an afterthought, begun only after Napoleon left the low countries in 1813, but drawn from the House of Orange which led the 16th-century independence revolt against Spain.

Many Dutchmen shrug off the powerless monarchy as irrelevant, but prefer to keep the tradition than to trade it in for an elected figurehead president. 

Even die-hard republicans, who want to see the monarchy dismantled and who plan to hold demonstrations on the wedding day, admit the vivacious Maxima has given the royals renewed sparkle and popularity.

"Maxima has set us back 20 years," said professor Arend Jan Dunning, the most noted Dutch anti-monarchist.

With all the pomp that the Royal Court can muster, the eldest son of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus will ride from Amsterdam's 594-year-old Nieuwe Kerk, or New Church, with his bride in the same horse-drawn gilded carriage used 100 years earlier for the wedding of his great-grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina.

It's a marriage that recalls ancient times, but also reflects modern tragedies.

Her father, Jorge Zorreguieta, served two years in the Videla regime that jailed, killed or kidnapped thousands of political opponents who were never seen again.

The royal family thought they put the controversy to rest when Maxima, appearing in public for the first time at the formal engagement last March, denounced the Videla regime and announced her father would not attend the wedding.

During that televised news conference, Maxima appeared demurring, assertive and charming all at once as she fielded questions in surprisingly fluent Dutch — which she had secretly been learning.

"That was the turning point. It went from one minute to the next. Suddenly, you saw more acceptance," said Cor de Horde, editor of the monthly Vorsten magazine and a leading royal watcher.

But Prince Willem-Alexander stirred the embers earlier this month when he dismissed a government-sponsored report concluding that Zorreguieta had been aware of human rights abuses, even if he did not participate in them. The prince called the report "an opinion".

The palace published what amounted to an apology, reiterating that "the prince and his bride-to-be reject the regime" in which her father served.

Days later, the government had to quash another budding scandal when Maxima asked her family's Roman Catholic priest to say a prayer at the Protestant ceremony. A Dutch magazine found old articles by the priest, Father Rafael Braun, expressing admiration for Videla.

"The government has checked whether there are facts or circumstances that could stand in the way" of Braun's participation at the church, a statement said.

"None have been found."

The fact that a Catholic could be the next queen has provoked surprisingly little protest, even though the Protestant-Catholic divide was a defining feature of the Netherlands' creation as a nation.

Only a few years ago, a sister of Queen Beatrix relinquished her titles and any claim to the throne when she married a Catholic.

Many Dutchmen see Maxima as a Princess Diana figure. Graceful and popular, she is marrying a prince often seen as lacking charisma and commonly described as "not very clever" — an impression boosted by his repeated bungling of the Zorreguieta affair.

"Willem has been stumbling through life," said de Horde, whose magazine closely follows royalty around the world.

"He wasn't a good student.

"He liked going out, drinking, behaving like a normal Dutchman, not like the crown prince."

By contrast, Maxima is more like Diana, a strong woman who effortlessly occupies centre stage.

Dunning, advocate of a Dutch republic, said in a magazine interview the similarity with Diana may go further.

"You imprison someone who is full of life in a strange country and you order her to obey all kinds of rules and give up her private life," Dunning said.

"Can anyone actually stand up to that?"

But de Horde said the pressures on Maxima will be less.

"We are quite different from the British. Their royal family has such high esteem that when they fail to live up to expectations, they fall farther," de Horde said.

30 January 2002

[Copyright 2002, Associated Press EN]

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