Prince Philippe's role as king: To keep Belgium together

Brussels - Belgium's crown prince Philippe, destined to become the nation's seventh sovereign later this month, will face a tough challenge - to keep the divided country together.

In his two decades at the helm of the small country, Albert II's most delicate task was to bridge the growing divide between Belgium's French-speaking south and Flemish-speaking north.

Born in Brussels on April 15, 1960, the 53-year-old eldest son of Albert II and of Queen Paola has been heir to the throne ever since the death in 1993 of his uncle and mentor King Baudouin, Albert's older brother.

In 1999, when already 39 years of age, Philippe married Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz, a charming Belgian aristocrat 13 years his junior, who brought a touch of glamour to the otherwise staid Belgian monarchy.

Philippe and Mathilde have four children including Princess Elisabeth who was born in 2001 and who is in line to be Belgium's first female successor to the throne.

The crown prince, who is expected to step onto the throne July 21, has two siblings - Astrid who is married to Archduke Lorenz of Austria-Este and Laurent, the "enfant terrible" of the Belgian royal family.

But he also has a half-sister, Delphine, who is Albert's illegitimate daughter but was brought up outside the family.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when relations between Albert - then crown prince- and Paola were at their worst, the couple paid little attention to their children, more often than not leaving them in the hands of friends or with the gardeners and chauffeurs of the royal household.

As a youngster Philippe was timid, and remains shy. He had a Roman Catholic education in Brussels and in Flanders but never shone.

He went on to military school, training as a fighter pilot and paratrooper before going on to Oxford and Stanford, but as a young man remained introverted and apparently ill at ease in public.

In 1993, when King Baudouin died childless at 62, it was expected 33-year-old Philippe, who was still single, would be crowned in his stead. But the political elite deemed him "not ready" and Albert stepped onto the throne.

In the last two decades Philippe has continued to prepare to be king, gaining assurance and heading dozens of economic missions for Belgium across the globe.

But he still lacks natural spontaneity as well as diplomatic skills and is often fiercely attacked in the Flemish-speaking north.

He was criticised there for overstepping his royal role after denouncing a far-right nationalist party, the Vlaams Belang and slammed as a dilettante after pronouncing the same speech twice in South Africa.

The real test however will be the general elections set for May 2014 where the powerful Flemish separatist party, the N-VA, is expected to do well.

It wants to see the monarchy play a purely symbolic role and has already threatened to scuttle the formation of a unity government unless its demands are met.