Real-life Ruritania nervously waits as Rainier lies gravely ill

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Europe's oldest and longest-reigning head of state remained gravely ill yesterday: so ill that his faithful subjects (all 6,000 of them) were preparing inwardly - and nervously - for a new era.

Europe's oldest and longest-reigning head of state remained gravely ill yesterday: so ill that his faithful subjects (all 6,000 of them) were preparing inwardly - and nervously - for a new era.

His Most Serene Highness Prince Rainier III has been, for 56 years, the most absolute of monarchs. He has not only ruled Monaco but also transformed it from a sleepy resort for idle aristocrats to a booming tax haven for the energetic nouveau riche.

Can his postcard realm, roughly the size of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, survive his passing?

What should the 6,000 Monégasques and 26,000 resident foreigners expect from his son and heir, so long kept at arm's length from the family business?

Prince Albert, 47, is a likeable man with the looks of a reliable family accountant, but he has none of his father's toughness and charisma and, to the consternation of his father and future subjects, no wife.

Prince Rainier, 81, has been in a "grave" condition in the intensive care unit of the tiny principality's specialist heart and lung unit since Tuesday. He is suffering from kidney and heart failure, brought on by a severe pulmonary infection. His doctors warned on Friday that he may not recover.

For 56 years, Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi, sovereign prince of Monaco and Duc de Valentinois, has been not only monarch of his square-mile realm on the French Riviera but also the de facto prime minister, chief executive and town mayor. Until his most recent series of illnesses, Rainier made the final decision on everything: from the colour of the park-keepers' uniforms to the type of motorcycles ordered for the country's (extremely large) police force. Rainier inherited from his grandfather in 1949 a seedy seaside town, mostly known for its casino. Over half a century later, Monaco is 20 per cent larger (thanks to costly reclamation of land from the sea) and enormously wealthier.

The principality is home to most of the racing divers and tennis players you have ever heard of. It is also the principal residence of, among others, Ringo Starr, Shirley Bassey and a lot of Russians who would prefer not to give their names. If you are a rich resident, almost anything goes. For everyone else, there is an atmosphere of conformist authoritarianism (no picnics in the parks; no singing in the street). Monaco has been described as "like East Germany with Rolls-Royces".

Of the 32,000 or so residents, only the 6,000 Monégasque citizens have the right to vote for a parliament, which has a little more influence than it used to have (ie, not very much). The mystique of the principality - the second smallest country in the world and the second most densely populated - was greatly enhanced by Rainier's marriage to the American actress Grace Kelly in 1956. The glitzy image has been increased, and tarnished, in recent years by the amorous exploits of their daughters, Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie.

Behind the Ruritanian, Hello! magazine façade, Prince Rainier has proved a shrewd monarch, seeing off a political takeover bid from Charles de Gaulle in 1963 and a financial takeover bid from Aristotle Onassis in the 1970s.

In recent years, his principality has been criticised for its lax banking laws. Monaco is on the OECD list of "uncooperative" tax havens, suspected of allowing the laundering of embezzled or criminally generated money from all over the world.

Prince Albert is said by friends to be embarrassed by this status and determined to clean up the micro-country's image when he comes to power. He is also said to be more willing than his father to allow an element of genuine democracy. Whether the "Monégasque miracle" can survive democracy and openness remains unclear.

Father and son are frequently said to have a strained relationship. Prince Albert stutters in French (his father's language) and speaks freely in English (his mother's). According to French psychologists, this is a sign that Albert has always felt intimidated by his father.

The fact that Albert has never married has provoked rumours that he is gay. His friends say that he is, in fact, rather energetically heterosexual. He has had many girl-friends. None of them could bear the idea of living in the media fish-bowl of Monaco.

The principality's constitution was changed three years ago to allow for the possibility that Albert will never produce an heir. The succession would then pass to his sisters and his aunt and their children and grandchildren. This leaves open the possibility that a future monarch of Monaco (currently 12th in line) will be called Prince Keith.