BRUSSELS — Belgians shouted "Long live the king" Sunday to welcome their new monarch to the throne on a sunny national holiday. But several legislators from northern Flanders boycotted King Philippe I's coronation, highlighting longstanding feuding between the nation's Dutch-speaking Flemings and Francophones – the biggest challenge the new monarch will face.
In his first speech as king shortly after his father King Albert II abdicated, Philippe made no attempt to paper over those cracks, instead casting the country's division between its 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones as one of its strengths.
"The wealth of our nation and our institutions consists in turning our diversity into a strength," he said after taking his oath of office at the country's parliament.
The ceremony capped a day of transition which started when Philippe's father, the 79-year-old Albert, signed away his rights as the kingdom's largely ceremonial ruler at the royal palace 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 its seventh king when Philippe, 53, pledged to abide by Belgium's laws and constitution.
While crowds of well-wishers cheered the royal family's every move Sunday, far from everybody in Belgium was happy with the new king.
One Flemish separatist group, the Flemish Interest party, boycotted the parliamentary ceremony, while the legislature's biggest party, the N-VA New Flemish Alliance, sent only a limited delegation.
`'We are full-blooded democrats and the purest form of democracy is the republic," said Jan Jambon, the parliamentary leader of the alliance, which has surged to become the main opposition party seeking Flemish independence through democratic transition. It wants the new king not to have any role in coalition negotiations to form a new government, not be head of the armed forces and not sign any laws.