Monaco prepares for royal wedding fever
Tens of thousands of tourists are expected to watch the prince and former Olympic swimmer marry in Monaco this week
He is the prince who never grew up—a one-time playboy and son of the Hollywood star Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. She is a working-class South African 20 years his junior, a former Olympic swimmer and the daughter of a photocopier salesman.
When Prince Albert of Monaco and Charlene Wittstock marry this week in a two-day populist extravaganza in the wealthy Mediterranean enclave, tens of thousands of tourists are expected to flood in to witness the ultimate “prince and commoner” wedding.
The American rockers the Eagles will belt out Hotel California in a special gig for locals while synth-pop guru Jean-Michel Jarre performs a light show over the port. Albert II, head of the tiny principality since his father died in 2005, will flaunt his eco credentials by staging the procession of the newlyweds in an open-top electric Lexus.
But the wedding is more than just the latest soap opera instalment of the House of Grimaldi, a dynasty as famous for its heartache as its glamour. It is vital for the survival of the Mediterranean tax haven. Monaco, the world’s smallest state after the Vatican, has 360 000 registered bank accounts and a 35 000 population—the vast majority of whom are foreign expats, many British, paying no income or capital gains tax. If Somerset Maugham once famously called Monaco “a sunny place for shady people”, Prince Albert declared when he took over that “morality, honesty and ethics” would guide his rule. In 2009, Monaco was removed from the OECD blacklist of unco-operative tax havens, after promising to be more transparent with foreign authorities asking questions. But it continues to exempt its rich foreign residents from paying tax, and its own vast wealth depends on the international fortunes that take residency there.
The Grimaldis, who have run the enclave for seven centuries, are the protectors of Monaco’s special status. “It’s a question of life and death,” said Francois Caviglioli, who has covered the principality for decades for Nouvel Observateur. “If there was no prince, and therefore no heir, Monaco would return to France. The stability of the prince’s family is crucial for Monaco’s numerous banks and its financial sector which craves security, not social unrest. Then there’s the image factor and tourism: lots of Europeans deprived of their own monarchies descend on Monaco to see what it’s all about.”
Many hope the wedding will be a boost after Monaco’s gloomy start to the year. The enclave’s top football team, which depends on Grimaldi money, was last month humiliatingly relegated to France’s League 2; the financial crisis has sobered the mood and even the famous roulette and baccarat tables of the Casino Monte-Carlo fell silent over Easter as croupiers went on strike over pay.
Whether Wittstock can return Monaco to its golden era when the American star and Hitchcock muse Grace Kelly became crown princess remains to be seen. Prince Albert first spotted her when she was 22 and competing in a Monaco swimming competition. The prince, a former member of Monaco’s Olympic bobsleigh team, said they bonded over sport. When injury ended her swimming career she moved to Monaco five years ago. She is famously nervous about manners and how to dress and talk, and has been taking French lessons although she is not yet fluent. She has won a reputation as a fashion symbol.
The couple, aged 53 and 33, now face two challenges: producing an heir and avoiding the personal trauma and tragedy that has plagued the Grimaldis. Albert has acknowledged two illegitimate children: a daughter with an American tourist and a son with a Togolese flight attendant. A change in the constitution allows the ruling prince’s title to pass through the female line, but a male heir is still sought after in the deeply traditional, Catholic enclave. Albert has insisted he knows nothing of a supposed curse on family marriages, but Kelly died in 1982 in a car crash on one of Monaco’s hairpin bends, his sister Caroline lost her second husband in a speed-boat crash and his youngest sister, Stephanie, is famous for an anguished love life, marrying and divorcing her bodyguard before marrying and divorcing a trapeze artist.
Wittstock, with her trademark Grace Kelly-style blonde chignon, has rejected the obvious physical comparisons with her husband’s late mother. Alain Perceval, author of a new book on the Monaco couple, says she should not be compared to Kate Middleton either. “Charlene comes from a very humble background in South Africa, a bit rustic, she’s from an ordinary family and had a very humble life,” he said. “You simply can’t compare her to Kate Middleton, who went to prestigious schools and comes from what we would call the haute bourgeoisie.”—guardian.co.uk