Albert II, the joyous king

 

Twenty-year rule by the accidental king

In the beginning of his reign, Albert II told me ‘I am becoming a king fairly late in life. I will fulfill this mission to the best of my ability with every best intention to do well. I saw, however, my brother wear himself out facing certain events. As for me, I’m not going to wear myself down like that.’”

This surprising confession came from a political personality on the abdication of the sixth king of Belgium. It perfectly suits this man during his reign. He brought to his role evident open-heartedness as well as a certain distance and a smile that never quit.

The other memory, almost audible, that Albert leaves us with, like an echo that goes on forever, is his hearty laugh.

Albert II’s image is that of a joyous king from the very beginning, compared to Baudouin, who, early in his reign, seemed to be the “sad king.”

The brothers have always been compared to each other. The older became a king too fast; the younger became the accidental king. These brothers’ lives were as different as their personalities, even though they were very close. The younger did not hide his admiration for his older brother. Neither could predict that they would ascend the throne when the time came for them do to so.

Albert though, unlike Baudouin, never became limited to his role. He symbolized Belgium just like Daddy but much more as well.

Let’s discover the man beneath the crown.

Affable

Everyone will tell you that Albert is simple, close to the people, and can quickly establish a rapport. He’s cordial with everyone in every circumstance. The duties attached to his role did not seem to weigh him down. For example, he would shake the hands of businessmen and journalists who accompanied him abroad on official visits right on the tarmac upon his return to Belgium. Paola did not undertake these duties with the same enthusiasm.

Several witnesses illustrate his habitual easy friendliness, as compared to his brother. In Laeken, Baudouin received his guests from behind his desk, pen in hand, writing everything down in his notebook. Albert welcomes company in armchairs in the same room, an index card with prepared questions between his fingers.

Such simplicity sometimes allows a more personal connection. His prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene relates, “one day I gave him a gift of a caricature of Royer. I never would have done that with Baudouin.”

This does not mean that Albert appreciates the friendly slap on the back. “He immediately puts you at ease, which at times can pose a problem,” explained a French-speaking politician. “It could lead to inappropriate familiarity.”

A person close to the king stated that Albert did not neglect his rank. “He is very conscious of who he is, a Royal Highness. Sometimes he says ‘I am still who I am!’ when he thinks he’s not being treated correctly.”

When this happens, though, he doesn’t necessarily make a big deal of it. Jean-Luc Dehaene remembers a story that occurred during Belgian’s European Council presidency in the 90’s. “We were expected for lunch at the palace, and the morning meeting was running late. The protocol service informed my collaborators, ‘This kind of delay is not done while the king is waiting!’ I then made sure that I arrived at the palace first and proclaimed to the king ‘You have saved Europe!’ Case closed.”

It’s true that Albert displayed great adaptability, even in the most comical situations. Robert Urbain who accompanied him on about twenty economic trips while he was still the Prince of Liège recalls, “During a trip to Ecuador, we spent a weekend in a house loaned to us by a Belgian family. There were three of us, and we gave the prince a bedroom with a waterbed. During the night, however, the heater stopped working and by morning Albert had a bad cold. When I asked why he stayed in that bed, he answered, ‘what was I supposed to do? Trade rooms with the Chief of the cabinet?’”

Albert is not fond of problems, quarrels or controversy. This is not to say that he lacks character. The Flemish politician said, “He’s a lot more stubborn than he seems. He’s an anxious person who can become furious.”

Man of kind words

On May 12, 2007 during a brief layover en route to New York at the Gander airport on the island of Newfoundland in Canada, Albert II took the occasion to greet the reporters that travelled with him that weekend for a visit to the UN. He had a word or a question for each one of them. Sometimes even a little joke for a few of them.

His sense of humor? It’s second nature. “He probably has the widest catalog of jokes in Belgium!” says a French-speaking politician. “He can spin them for an hour!” and one is obligated to laugh. Isn’t there a saying that the only crime of lese-majesty is to forget to laugh at one of Albert’s jokes? His entourage makes sure to laugh at each jest.

Albert enjoys humor in all its forms. The palace has even been known to call Le Soir to get some information on the cartoons of our own caricaturist, Kroll, during a turbulent or productive political period. In 2009 for instance, when the prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, became the president of the European Council and was replaced by Yves Leterme, we learned that the next morning the king “roared with laughter” upon seeing the drawing.

Responsible

Baudouin’s younger brother, Albert, did not prepare himself, nor was he prepared to take on royal functions. He never meddled with political issues. As the Prince of Liège, he did not rub shoulders with the political class unless it was during his economic trips as the honorary president of exterior commerce over 31 years. For decades he never met with the party presidents. For a long time he led a much freer life than allowed by royal etiquette.

He didn’t necessarily expect to ascend the throne. On the contrary, Jean-Luc Dehaene says, “on a plane one day Albert told me that one of the conditions Paola made before he married her was that he would never become king.”

This does not mean that Albert never thought about it. Several witnesses say that in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Philippe was presented more and more as Baudouin’s heir (the uncle was preparing his nephew). Albert exclaimed on several occasions, “We’re passing me over a little too quickly!” We will see at another point what circumstances led Albert to the throne.

Not a workaholic

Albert became king at the age of 59. This is the age when most dream of retirement, and this influenced his pace.

During the summer of 2009, when the economic crisis was full blown, he took almost two months vacation from the end of July to the end of September, with the possible exceptions of one palace festivity and two or three royal audiences toward the end of August.

Earlier, during the endless creation of a government in 2007 and the Orange-Blue failure, he had to return on the double from Grasse to accept one of Yves Leterme’s resignations.

A politician recounts, “You only have to see the number of laws and decrees Albert signed in the south of France” because “he loves the sun, and being on vacation”, adds a French-speaker.

He lives a deliberate life. From the beginning of his reign, he confidently intended to “not work himself to death,” even as monarch. Our witness thinks that in the beginning, Albert saw himself as a transitional king. “After one or two years on the throne, he made a veiled reference to an eventual abdication after a certain age. I answered, ‘don’t even think about it! All the kings of Belgium died on the throne.’ He turned to Paola and said, ‘See? All the kings died on the throne.’”

Despite his resolve to not work himself to death, according to most, Albert II did take his job seriously. He invested himself more than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of his rule, but he did it his way. As he when he was the president of exterior commerce, he did a great deal for business people.

Jean-Luc Dehaene states, “Baudouin always seemed to carry the burden of Belgium on his shoulders. He was very conscious of his responsibility and his role. These thoughts occupied him from morning to evening. Since he was backed by the authority of a 40-year reign, he was approached with a certain deference. Then from one day to the next, the reins changed hands, and King Albert’s personality was much more relaxed and informal. With him, it was friendlier, less hierarchical. He didn’t identify with his role: he put it into perspective. He did not mold his lifestyle to his role.”

The words have been said. Albert? Not a workaholic? “It’s the least we can say. He took his role seriously, but was very happy when you made sure that there was no trouble!”

In this respect, his sister-in-law Fabiola’s recent misadventures regarding her Belgian and Spanish foundations did nothing to bring peace to his last months on the throne. Robert Urbain agrees, “This is not a person who would have risked a depression from overwork, but he spared no effort.”

This is the general opinion. What Albert did, he did well. “When the country was in trouble, he made every effort,” said a political personality. No one, however, would accuse him of workaholism.

Sensitive

Even emotional, sentimental. Since the day he took up his duties, August 9, 1993, the proof was there: Albert II’s trembling betrayed his emotions. It had nothing to do with Parkinson’s disease, which some people suspected. When Albert II is moved by something, he begins to tremble, as he did at Astrid’s wedding according to one witness. A close friend adds, “When a crisis occurred that he feared he would not be able to handle, he became pale, his hands shook, and he began to sweat.”

His reconciliation with Paola after long years of difficulty also testifies to the man’s sensitivity. As far as public displays of emotion, July 21, 2003, the celebration of ten years of his reign is a good example.

Faithful

Despite his eventful personal life over two decades, the king is very faithful. Mass is celebrated at Laeken every day. Albert and Paola, like Baudouin and Fabiola or Astrid and Lorenz, belong to the charismatic revival, and they take part in prayer groups.

He has a deep and simple faith. One friend recalls an old anecdote, “One day, Albert said to me, ‘you’ve noticed that I don’t reread my speeches before I give them: If the Holy Spirit wants me to speak them well, I will.’ He has never denied his religiosity. He is quite concerned about his future in heaven.”

Lover of life’s pleasures

Albert has resisted few of life’s pleasures. Boats, cars and motorcycles are some of these. For many years, thanks to the anonymity provided by his helmet, he could enjoy long and free rides on his motorcycles…with a few stops for fries. The pleasures of the table are also some of his favorites, so much so that a friend recalls, “he was always adjusting his tailoring because he would gain and lose weight. He loves food and Italian wines.”

His other passions should not be forgotten, including photography. Even during official foreign visits, it was not at all rare to see Albert with his Nikon camera slung around his neck. A lesser-known passion is for church organ music. However, we were told surreptitiously that the king is not a literary man; he doesn’t read much…if it’s not the press’s review of the Palace.

Should we include in this chapter the liaison that Albert maintained with Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps in the sixties? Delphine Boël, the issue of that love affair, has become the poisoned fruit of Albert II, King of the Belgians’ reign. Her existence was revealed in 1999, and since then the king has reluctantly acknowledged her during his Christmas speech that year, and for the rest of his reign… perhaps beyond it. The recent meeting between Delphine Boël, the king, Prince Philippe and Princess Astrid, which took place in the hope of an acknowledgment of Albert II’s paternity via DNA testing, might provide a new twist in the story when Albert is no longer on the throne.

In some respects, Albert also has royal tastes. “He had a certain love for money, for rich people who had a position in society, boats, jets…” this friend explains. That brings us to another anecdote. The Queen of England impressed Albert, who is accustomed to visiting royal families. He, however, never had the pleasure of being invited to the court in London. “Albert and Paola tried to get invited; certain ambassadors did everything they could to get them an invitation, but they failed. The Belgian royal couple was never invited because Guy Coëme refused to sell ammunition to Great Britain during the first Gulf War.” That was at the end of 1990, while Baudouin was still king. Albert is still suffering the consequences.

However, the Anglo-Saxon clan did not always snub him. When he was just a teenager, he charmed those across the Atlantic…the proof: a report authored in 1947 when the American ambassador to Belgium brought up the royal question. At the time Washington wondered about the future of our monarchy. Who would eventually succeed Leopold III? The US ambassador was clearly on Albert’s side, to Baudouin’s detriment, citing these points: “more character, a better attitude, more malleable and more intelligent.”

Albert, malleable? Let’s just say he was willing to bend to certain constraints to avoid useless controversy, even when it wasn’t to his advantage or at important times. The proof can be seen at the time he took his oath, August 9, 1993.

A highly placed French-speaker explains, “he arrived in the Chamber ill at ease, in a poorly-fitting uniform…loaned to him by an Army general! He didn’t wear his Admiral’s uniform because the Army had put pressure on him to wear theirs under the pretext that it was the most important branch of the military!”

Judging by what followed, faithful to himself, he would have the last laugh…

 

MARTINE DUBUISSON

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