Will love conquer all? For a few fairy-tale weeks in Belgium, people are daring to believe it. For on Saturday, their handsome crown prince will take a beautiful bride, and happiness-starved Belgians are bathing in the reflected bliss.
The impending royal marriage was announced in September, when Prince Philippe, the 39-year-old heir to the throne now occupied by King Albert II, formally introduced his future queen, Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz. In a nation of 10 million people who seldom agree on anything about the way their country is led, just about everyone thinks the match is brilliant.
The future princess, a 26-year-old speech therapist, is lovely, poised, bright, dignified and relaxed: She wore beige slacks for her first photo opportunity. She is of noble descent and, better yet, a native Belgian; every one of Belgium's kings dating from 1830 has married a foreigner.
Even more important in this country long riven by twin cultures and languages, Mathilde personifies the compromise that holds Belgium together. She was born in Brussels and lives here. Her family hails from Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north, but they settled and brought her up in French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
"She's perfect! She's the Bionic Princess!" said University of Liege historian Francis Balace. "It's as if she were predestined to this role, and it isn't an easy one," said Baron Georges Jacobs, a Brussels executive and friend of the royals.
A committee could not have done better. Possibly not Prince Philippe, either. Some Belgians had begun to despair over the crown prince, who as he pushed 40 seemingly had not had much success or interest in finding a queen. He was faulted for being timid and rumored to be gay. His matrimonial drift was seen as another symbol of the decline of the monarchy.
Such talk has vanished under the astonishing "Mathilde effect" that has taken hold in Belgium, driving business confidence indicators higher and giving a new, shaky coalition government an extension on its honeymoon.
Carefully managed public appearances by the young lovers and hyperventilating coverage by the Belgian media have momentarily dispelled the grim malaise that has beset the Belgians for much of the past decade: a succession of political corruption scandals that included contract killings; a deepening rift between the two language groups and ominous talk about an independent Flanders; a particularly horrific 1996 murder-pedophile case that exposed titanic bungling in the Belgian police and judiciary; and, last spring, a dioxin food-contamination scare that brought down the government that tried to cover it up.
"Belgians were depressed, and through all the dark clouds there came a ray of sunshine named Mathilde," said Christian Laporte, who covers the largely powerless constitutional monarchy for the Brussels daily Le Soir. A poll published in Le Soir over the weekend indicated 65 percent of Belgians called themselves monarchists.
"Even though we're a complex society, and it's not in our nature to be nationalistic, we do have a few things in common, and the royal family is one of them," said Jacobs. "A piece of good news like this is reassuring to a country that's lost confidence in itself."
Balace noted that the last royal wedding of this import here took place in 1960, when the long-serving and ultimately childless King Baudouin was married. "A lot of Belgians link themselves to royal weddings of their generation, and it had been nearly two generations since they had had one," he said.
Yet even the wedding news from Laeken Palace generated a nasty cloud or two. Paul Gendebien, head of a small party seeking to detach Wallonia from Belgium and attach it to France, said the wedding had been "exploited politically" by politicians and journalists seeking to hold an "unviable" Belgium together by "artificial" means.
"It's not even a fairy tale for children," said Gendebien. "It's a lullaby for babies."
A new book released just after the wedding announcement reported that Albert, who has been king since the death of his brother Baudouin in 1993, fathered a child in an adulterous liaison in the late 1960s. His daughter is a London sculptor named Delphine Boel; since the revelation, she and her mother, Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamp, have been featured in photo spreads in glossy popular magazines across Europe.
Although Albert's past and the existence of Delphine were well known, less credibility is given to other published reports that Queen Paola, the Italian-born wife of King Albert, had had her own extramarital dalliances--and that Philippe's younger brother Laurent is not of royal blood.
Balace, among others, thinks these reports surfaced "certainly not by coincidence." He said "some people were very happy to throw a banana peel" under the wedding march. The stories went away quickly in any case.
Instead the Belgians are being treated to a feast of fawning media coverage in advance of the palace wedding, at which royalty from Europe and elsewhere will gather. A thousand Belgian citizens have also been invited.
Philippe and Mathilde have been making the rounds of towns and villages to introduce themselves. The future king has degrees from Stanford and Oxford, distinguished himself as a Belgian air force fighter pilot, and according to someone who has met him frequently, is well versed, even sophisticated, about the major issues facing Belgium.
Laporte said the crown prince may have been underestimated by his own people because he is fundamentally serious and discreet. Philippe is more likely to be spotted bicycling in the countryside than dancing in night clubs or frolicking on Mediterranean beaches. "Laeken Palace is not Monaco," he said.