Albert II, King of the Belgians

3rd July 2013, Comments 0 comments

Albert II, the modest, self-effacing King of the Belgians, abdicated Wednesday aged 79 after a 20-year reign increasingly focused on maintaining the unity of a nation torn between its French and Flemish speaking halves.

Born June 6, 1934, Albert was the second son of Leopold III and Queen Astrid but succeeded to the throne on August 9, 1933 after the unexpected death of his brother, King Baudouin, who passed away childless.

At the time, the country largely expected that Albert, then already nearly 60 and having spent 30 years as a "super-ambassador" promoting Belgium's foreign trade, would step aside and let his eldest son Philippe take the crown.

Albert was known to be a 'bon vivant,' a lover of fast cars, and had married in 1958 a noted beauty of the day, Italian aristocrat Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria.

He "did not have the devotion of his brother," royal biographer Patrick Reogiers said of Albert II.

However, he surprised his doubters "as the sense of duty quickly came to the fore," said Christian Laporte, another writer on the Belgian monarchy.

Albert may not have been as adept at reading the finer nuances of Belgium's complex political scene but he showed that he understood better than many how his subjects felt, especially in 1996 when the notorious Dutroux paedophile murder case traumatised the nation.

After a protest march in Brussels by thousands who felt the authorities had let them down, Albert met the survivors of the Dutroux nightmare, a gesture "which without a doubt" helped steady the country as a whole, Laporte wrote.

Albert was also seen as the king of a 'new Belgium' after constitutional reforms in 1993 set up a federal structure giving extensive powers to Flanders, the Flemish-speaking north of the country, to French-language Wallonia in the south, and to Brussels, the capital hosting European Union and NATO institutions.

As tensions rose between the French- and Flemish-speaking communities, Albert II was a constant reminder that the monarchy was one of the few institutions that all could support. But in the past few years even that has come under pressure as nationalist Flemish politicians attacked the role of the crown, and then the king personally.

He worked tirelessly to bring both sides together, calling in political leaders of all persuasions as one political crisis followed another to the point where the country was without a government for 18 months after elections in 2010.

National polls due in 2014 are shaping up to be even more divisive, presenting a daunting challenge to his successor, Philippe.

Albert was forthright in denouncing what he saw as the separatist tendencies at work in the country.

The king's personal life was marked by early tragedy -- his mother Astrid died in a car accident when he was only one.

The outbreak of World War II saw the royal family confined to the Laeken palace in Brussels and then moved by the German occupiers to Austria where they were eventually freed by US troops in May 1945.

But there was no immediate return home due to significant opposition to the monarchy over its wartime role and the royal family decided to go to Switzerland, staying there until 1950.

At that point, Leopold III decided that rather than risk what appeared at the time to be the likelihood of civil conflict, he would hand the crown to his eldest son Baudouin.

Albert II had three children -- Prince Philippe, born in 1960, and Astrid and Laurent. In 1999, the king publicly acknowledged another child, Delphine Boel, born to Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps with whom he had a long affair dating back to the 1960s.

She went to court in June to win official recognition, the latest chapter in a string of scandals that hit the royal family this year and that led to a government decision to demand the family for the first time pay taxes on its state allowances.

© 2013 AFP

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