Is it just a holiday look or could it be a sign that Belgium's Crown Prince Philippe is ready to assume the throne? The local press on Monday dissected a new royal beard for clues.
Prince Philippe, 50, sported the short greying beard for the first time over the weekend, during a visit to a retirement home where nine pensioners perished in a fire last week.
He had interrupted his summer holiday in France to make the visit and set media tongues wagging, with the image change commanding many newspaper headlines.
"Some believe that it gives him a more mature appearance, more assured, others say it makes him look a bit old," La Derniere-Heure reported.
Prince Philippe, who has not always had an easy relationship with the Belgian media, is "ready for the throne," Figaro Pasquale, a top Italian hairdresser in Amsterdam, told one newspaper.
"His beard shows that, it suggests a depth and confidence and projects a majestic man," he informed the Dutch-language Het Laatste Nieuws daily.
Belgium will have to wait until the prince returns from his holiday "to find out if this hirsuteness is temporary," stressed the Derniere-Heure paper.
There was no comment on the subject of intense royal conjecture by the palace, which considered the subject purely a personal one.
When his uncle King Baudouin died in 1993, some thought that Philippe, who had been taken under the monarch's wing, would succeed him.
But it was Philippe's father Albert, brother to Baudouin, who mounted the throne with his son apparently deemed to be not mature enough to assume the crown in a country where the monarch can play a politically-significant role in time of governmental crisis.
Since then the Belgian press has regularly debated whether the shy prince would do better to give up his turn as king if his daughter Elisabeth, who is not eight, is old enough to take over.
King Albert II is 75-years-old.
No Belgian king has grown a beard since the resplendent version sported by King Leopold II at the start of the 20th century.
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