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Spain: three questions on the departure of former king Juan Carlos

King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his wife, Queen Sofia (Sophie of Greece), attend a military parade at the Pardo Palace in Madrid on October 19, 2009.
King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his wife, Queen Sofia (Sophie of Greece), attend a military parade at the Pardo Palace, in Madrid, on October 19, 2009. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

King of Spain from 1975 to 2014, Juan Carlos I is suspected of corruption. The sovereign announced his departure from the country, to protect the reign of his son, Felipe VI.

The old king is leaving so as not to tarnish his son’s reign.  The Spanish monarchy made the headlines of the Hispanic press, Tuesday, August 4, after the announcement, made by Juan Carlos I himself, of his departure from Spain, for an unknown destination . In a  letter  ( in Spanish ) addressed to his son Felipe VI, and made public by the royal household, the former monarch announces his  “considered decision to leave Spain, for the moment”. « A year ago, I expressed my will and my desire to give up institutional activities », he  recalls. 

“It’s a decision that I take with deep pain, but with great serenity ,” he adds. I was King of Spain for almost forty years, and during all those years I always wanted the best for Spain and for the Crown. «   Why the old king he left the country? What has been his role in Spanish political life? Franceinfo answers four questions on the Juan Carlos affair. 

1Who is Juan Carlos I?

Juan Carlos was born in exile, in Italy, in 1938. His father, Count of Barcelona and pretender to the throne of Spain, is a Bourbon, direct descendant of Louis XIV. He was driven out in 1931 by the Republicans. The young man of royal blood discovers his country of origin under the Franco dictatorship. He was appointed in 1969 as Franco’s official successor and moved from the status of prince of Spain to that of interim head of state, five years later, thanks to the general’s health problems.

Juan Carlos acceded to the throne on November 22, 1975. He was then 37 years old and was crowned two days after the death of the dictator who ruled the country for more than thirty-five years. Nobody believes in Juan Carlos. « Many people imagined that it would not last long »,  but   »  c GAINST all odds, he triumphed, »  remembers the daily  El Pais  (in Spanish). A triumph which has a date, or rather a night: that of February 23 to 24, 1981. In these last days of February, Spain is going through economic problems and is shaken by Basque terrorism. On February 23, the Spanish deputies were taken hostage by the military. Shots are fired in the Parliament, during a session broadcast live. The intervention is condemned a few hours later by the monarch. Dressed in his uniform of captain general of the armies, Juan Carlos I restores order: he condemns the intervention of the putschist officers of the Civil Guard and orders them to join the ranks.

He  « saved Spain from a coup »,  explains Laurence Debray, author of the biography  Juan Carlos of Spain  at the  microphone of Europe 1 . The monarch, who has won popular favor, continues his reforms and opens the country to modernity: he  « restores democracy in Spain »  and ensures  « for almost forty years a period of stability and economic growth, » says his biographer. “The real role of Juan Carlos was to unite a Spain emerging from a dictatorship,”  adds Benoît Pellistrandi, historian specializing in contemporary Spain,  to franceinfo . The miracle that Juan Carlos achieved was to ensure that the first free elections in 1977 were held with all political forces, including the Communists.  » 

2What do we blame him for? 

But  “human beings are fallible. There will always be a fault, ”  recalls an editorial from ABC newspaper   ( in Spanish). In the 2010s, cases shake public opinion and splash the crown: the son-in-law of the monarch, the former handball player Iñaki Urdangarin, is at the heart of a scandal of embezzlement. He was dismissed at the end of 2011 from the royal palace for  “non-exemplary conduct”. In 2012, as Spain went through a severe economic crisis and unemployment exploded, the king came under fire from critics after breaking his hip during a luxury safari in Botswana. Juan Carlos had gone to hunt the elephant, accompanied by his mistress Corinna Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and Saudi friends. This huge lifestyle shocks many Spaniards. The controversy is such that Juan Carlos abdicates in June 2014, leaving the throne to his son, Felipe VI. “  No one could think of such an end,”  notes  El Pais .

But the scandals do not end there. The Spanish press unveils recordings by former mistress Corinna Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, in which she is heard claiming that Juan Carlos received a commission for the concession of a contract of 6.7 billion euros awarded in 2011 to a consortium of Spanish companies for the construction of the “desert train”, a high speed train between Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia. A file was opened by the Spanish anti-corruption prosecution in September 2018. In March 2020, the bribery case took a new turn: the daily  La Tribune de Genève  revealed  ( paid article) that the monarch would have received, in 2008, 100 million dollars from the former Saudi king Abdallah on a Swiss account of a Panamanian foundation. At the beginning of June, the Supreme Court took up the case, since Juan Carlos was, at the time of the facts concerned, still king and therefore protected by his immunity. An investigation was opened in June.

3Why is he leaving Spain?

This is the question that drives current debates. Is he seeking to escape justice or to protect his son, King Felipe VI? For Laurence Debray, Juan Carlos  « does not flee from his responsibilities »  but  « leaves to save the Crown, so that his affairs do not mar the image »  of the monarchy and his son. An opinion  shared by historian Benoît Pellistrandi  :  “We urged him to leave and it is a conspiracy which is both family and governmental. King Felipe VI needed the pressure on the monarchical institution to come down.  » The latter thanked his father for his decision. After the revelations in the press, the young king withdrew from his father an annual endowment from the royal palace valued at more than 194,000 euros per year and announced that he was renouncing his father’s inheritance, to restore exemplarity of the royal family.

In addition, according to  El Pais  (article in Spanish),  the king leaves alone: ​​his wife, Queen Sofia (Sophie of Greece), remains in Madrid and does not wish to follow her husband, with whom relations have been strained for several years. Critics against the departure of the former king fuse in the country, already divided on the question of the monarchy. « The flight of Juan Carlos de Borbon abroad is an act unworthy of a former head of state and it leaves the monarchy in a very compromised position » , lambasted the Deputy Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias, of the party of radical left Podemos, opposed to the monarchy. The socialist executive, for its part, contented itself with soberly expressing its  « respect » for the decision of the fallen king. Accused of fleeing a possible judicial conviction, Juan Carlos defended himself through his lawyer, Javier Sanchez-Junco. The latter said in a statement that the former monarch would remain at the disposal of the prosecution.

source: franceinfo – France Televisions

Par Jules Bercy

A writer a blogger passionate about science, history politics, the general knowledge of our planet and the Universe...

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