Monaco royals invite subjects to populist marriage

Monaco's medieval royal house invited the entire population of its tiny realm to join them in celebration on Friday as the ruling Grimaldi clan prepared to embrace a glamorous new princess.

The Mediterranean tax haven declared two days of national holiday as Prince Albert II prepared to marry South African swimming champion Charlene Wittstock, hoping his romance will help him win back the hearts of his people too.

The 53-year-old playboy's lengthy bachelorhood had begun to try the patience of his people, keen for him to secure the stability and traditions of the royal house by producing a legitimate heir with his statuesque bride.

Now the Grimaldi clan hopes the wedding, and the accompanying feast days, will give their image a boost, just as the year's previous royal wedding in London gave the British monarchy a much needed shot in the arm.

"This marriage will complete the image of the principality, allow the wider public to see beyond the cliches," Monaco tourism chief Michel Bouquier told reporters. "We are going to astonish, and astonish by giving pleasure.

"Yes, Monaco is glamour, luxury, the exceptional - it's in our DNA - but this will help round out our image," he promised.

Certainly, no expense has been spared.

At 6:30 pm (1630 GMT), shortly after the 40 minute civil ceremony, the bells of the chapel dedicated to Monaco's patron saint Sainte Devote will ring out and champagne will be distributed in shops and businesses.

"Champagne is our national drink here," Bouquier joked.

A pink beer brewed with cranberries has been produced by Monaco's own small brewery, and will be available for two days, to complement the grilled meat on dozens of braai, the traditional barbecue of Charlene's homeland.

Bouquier said the wedding budget had been doubled to eight million euros, but the principality hopes to generate much more in tourist revenue and has laid on extra trains from France - as many as for its annual Grand Prix.

On the eve of the ceremony, the royal couple joined a 15,000-strong crowd of their subjects and Monaco residents to cheer California rockers The Eagles at the stadium of the principality's recently relegated football team.

They may have made the appearance to lay to rest persistent rumours that the 33-year-old blonde athlete has cold feet about going through with the marriage, but they appeared to share the joy of the crowd.

A smiling Charlene, who already appeared relaxed and content earlier on Thursday when she arrived for a wedding rehearsal, even tried out some dance steps with His Most Serene Highness as the fans cheered.

Charlene showed off her broad swimmer's shoulders in a black bustier, despite reports that she is trying to modify her exercise routine to achieve a more classically elegant shape, and Albert wore a dark jacket.

The Eagles played their standout 1976 hit "Hotel California" early in their set, but kept the crowd amused by dedicating "Love will keep us alive" to host Albert who has kept Monaco waiting for a bride.

Charlene was to become "Princess of Monaco" shortly after 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) Friday, when Philippe Narmino, Monaco's top legal official and president of the state council, pronounces the couple man and wife.

Late Friday the entire enclave will resound to the pulsing electropop of 63-year-old French showman Jean-Michel Jarre, then on Saturday the couple will wed again in a Catholic ceremony attended by celebrity guests.

"I'll let the music run its course," said an 86-year-old local who still remembers the 1956 nuptials of Albert's father Rainier and Hollywood siren Grace Kelly. "It's a happy day. Monaco has seen enough grief."

But, reflecting the view of many who talked to AFP, he also moved quickly onto the next big question: "The important thing is that there be an heir."

Albert has illegitimate children with two other women but has yet to produce a royal heir, a matter of some concern to Monaco constitutionalists, who fear instability should the throne revert to his sister Caroline.

Since the 13th century, Monaco has been run by the Grimaldi family, the crown passing through the male line. In 2002, fearing Albert would die without an heir, Monaco changed its constitution to allow a princess to inherit.

If Albert should die in the absence of any heir, Monaco would become a French protectorate, and might lose its lucrative tax-free status.

Albert's mother, Princess Grace, died in a car crash in 1982. Her daughter Caroline lost her second husband Stefano Casiraghi in a 1990 motorboat accident.

The other royal sister, Princess Stephanie, has also been unlucky in love, in the words of Wednesday's edition of Le Parisien "marrying almost as often as she falls in love" and finding herself betrayed by her bodyguard lover.

burs-dc/gk

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