Monaco toasts royal couple as Albert finally marries

Monaco's Prince Albert II married South African beauty Charlene Wittstock and made her his princess Friday, throwing open the gates of his palace to celebrate with the entire Mediterranean nation.

All 7,810 adult Monegasque subjects were invited to a buffet reception at the Grimaldis' medieval palace, overlooking the tiny tax haven's main marina, and the crowd cheered when the nervous-looking couple made their vows.

"Once again in its seven-century history the Grimaldi dynasty is opening up to a new world," declared Philippe Narmino, Monaco's senior legal officer and registrar, as he conducted the civil ceremony.

"In joining it, mademoiselle, you are bringing the freshness of your youth, the richness of another culture, and the modernity of your gaze," he said, as Charlene -- clad in a powder-blue gown she designed herself -- smiled.

Asked whether she accepted Albert's hand, she responded firmly "Oui" and the groom kissed her hand, as around 90 close friends and family looked on and Albert's sister Princess Stephanie dried her eyes with a hanky.

The throne room ceremony was transmitted to the crowds on giant screens, before the couple emerged onto a balcony, shared a brief kiss and waved to wellwishers before descending to join them to cries of "Hurrah!".

"We've been waiting for this marriage for quite a while," said a 30-year-old onlooker, herself to marry next month. "It's a modern marriage, international, not dynastic. He chose someone simple, and discreet, like us."

Following Friday's ceremony the couple were to wed again on Saturday in a Catholic service attended by fellow royals and stars from fashion and showbusiness.

The 53-year-old playboy's lengthy bachelorhood had begun to try the patience of his subjects, who live crammed in a tight hillside warren of concrete tower blocks alongside tens of thousands more foreign tax exiles.

Now he has presented them with a princess that looks the part, a statuesque blonde with poise and style, and locals hope the couple will ensure an orderly succession by producing a legitimate heir.

Monaco's privileged status as an independent principality that sets its own low tax rates and regulates its own financial services depends on it having a prince, and Albert's Grimaldi clan has ruled since the 13th century.

The local elite hopes the wedding will give the Grimaldi image a boost, just as the year's previous royal wedding in London gave the British monarchy a much-needed shot in the arm.

"I hope that this day marks a new start for our country," Albert said to the crowd, promising "a new page in the history of the principality."

The couple's subjects had clubbed together to buy them gifts of artwork: a piece by 19th century French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and a gouache painted by Russian expressionist Wassily Kandinsky.

Later the Monegasque nationals headed down to the port for a braai, a traditional barbecue in swimming champ Charlene's homeland, and drinks with thousands of the wealthy foreign residents.

A pink beer brewed with cranberries has been produced by Monaco's own small brewery, and entertainment was provided by sexagenarian electropop pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre with a massive waterfront sound and light show.

"It's a happy day. Monaco has seen enough grief," said an 86-year-old local who still remembers the 1956 nuptials of Albert's father Rainier and Hollywood siren Grace Kelly. "The important thing is that there be an heir."

Gossip is endemic in Monaco's tiny native community, but many are reluctant to share their concerns with outsiders, and most of those who spoke to AFP did so on condition of anonymity.

"A marriage brings us security for the succession," said an 80-year-old retired casino manager. "Charlene's very pretty, I just hope she adapts.

"We're lucky to be Monegasque. We live the good life, protected jobs, no military service. It's important to have a prince. With no prince there's no principality," he said.

Albert has illegitimate children with two women but has yet to produce a royal heir. In 2002, fearing Albert would die without a legitimate prince, Monaco changed its constitution to allow a princess to inherit.

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

The other royal sister, 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.

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