King Felipe was ‘untouchable’ as public lost respect for Juan Carlos

Queen Letizia of Spain marries King Felipe VI in 2004

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In 2020, Juan Carlos I, the former King of Spain, announced his decision to leave the country because of “public repercussions that certain past events in my life are causing”. In a letter, published on the official website of the Spanish royal household, he claimed his departure would allow his son, King Felipe VI, to continue to perform his royal duties in “tranquillity”. It was a final step in a downward spiral that had begun eight years earlier, which saw Juan Carlos abdicate and Felipe ascend the throne. However, while the once-adored Spanish institution faced a crisis and the former King’s reputation became increasingly damaged, there were some members of the family that managed to stay above the fray.

According to journalist Fernando Cano, King Felipe VI and his wife Queen Letizia “remain untouchable”.

He told Business Insider in 2015: “Respect for the monarchy has not disappeared, it’s (respect) for Juan Carlos.”

The former king had abdicated the throne a year earlier, in June 2014. It came after two years of controversy surrounding the Spanish monarch.

In 2012, he embarked on an ill-advised hunting trip to Botswana, rumoured to have cost around €40,000 (£32,000), which was paid for by Mohamed Eyad Kayali — an advisor to the Saudi royal family who was later named as an offshore account holder in the 2016 Panama Papers.

The ex-monarch’s costly holiday came at a difficult time for the Spanish royals; their country was in the midst of a recession and facing soaring employment.

To add salt to the wound, Juan Carlos was also said to have been hunting elephants, despite holding the position of honourary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund. A photograph taken on the trip showed the former King posing with the elephant he had killed.

Juan Carlos’ mistress Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who is 27 years his junior, was among those who accompanied him on the trip. In fact, the safari was a present from the then-king to her son on his tenth birthday.

The former monarch had been romantically involved with Corinna from 2004 to 2009; their relationship was conducted in secret, with the public unaware Juan Carlos, who has been married to Queen Sofia since 1962, and his mistress’ affair at the time.

Shortly after his return to Spain, Juan Carlos’ role in the elephant hunt came to light. During his first appearance, the former King was asked how he was. He replied: “I’m sorry, I made a mistake, and it won’t happen again.”

The 85-year-old royal had been largely off limits to critical reports due to his role in guiding Spain’s transition to democracy following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. But following the safari revelation, the damage to the popular monarch’s image was colossal.

Jose Antonio Zarzalejos, a former editor of Spain’s right-wing, monarchy-supporting newspaper ABC, told the BBC in 2020: “The crisis blew up because the Botswana trip put several things on the table. Firstly, the King was openly unfaithful to Queen Sofia. Secondly, that in the midst of an economic crisis, Juan Carlos visited a country where Spain had no diplomatic representation.

“So the King — as head of state — was off the radar of the Spanish government. And thirdly, this was a very expensive trip — we didn’t know who paid for it. It created a lousy image of the King.”

Juan Carlos was unable to shake the curse of the elephant and ultimately stepped down from his royal role.

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The revelations, in respect of the alleged corruption, were looked into and became the catalyst for the opening of investigations in Switzerland and in Spain.

In December 2021, the Swiss prosecutors, who were investigating the former King in relation to a $100million (£80million) gift to Corinna in 2012, dropped all cases due to the impossibility of proving any illegality.

In March 2022, Spanish prosecutors closed all cases against him.

Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to protect the already tarnished public image of the Spanish royal household, King Felipe has dissociated himself as much as possible from his father.

In March 2020, the King cancelled Juan Carlos’s annual state stipend of €200,000 (£174,000) and renounced his inheritance amid rumours that he stood to benefit from some of his predecessors’ offshore funds.

The statement from the royal household read: “King Juan Carlos is aware of his decision to renounce the inheritance of Juan Carlos that could personally correspond to him, as well as to any asset, investment or financial structure whose origin, characteristics or purpose may not be in accordance with the legality or with the criteria of rectitude and integrity that govern his institutional and private activity and that they must report the activity of the Crown.”

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