King Felipe VI celebrates 50th birthday with intimate glimpse of family life

Spain's King Felipe VI will celebrate his 50th birthday Tuesday as the royal house seeks to drum up public support for the monarchy amid a crisis over Catalonia's separatist push.

King Felipe VI celebrates 50th birthday with intimate glimpse of family life
King Felipe VI with his youngest daughter, Princess Sofia at the Zarzuela Palace. Photo: Casa Real

The festivities will throw the spotlight on the king's oldest daughter Leonor, the 12-year-old heir to the throne. 

Felipe will award the angelic-looking princess with one of Spain's most prestigious awards, the Order of the Golden Fleece which dates from 1430, at a ceremony in Madrid.

To mark his birthday, the Royal Palace over the weekend released dozens of photos and videos providing a rare glimpse of Felipe's domestic life with his wife Letizia, a former TV anchor, and their two young daughters.   

They show Leonor in her school uniform holding Felipe's hand, laughing while eating soup at the family dinner table, and teasing the king just before he taped his annual Christmas message.

The images are meant to make the royal couple more relatable to Spaniards, in a country where the monarchy was only restored in 1975 following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco, and support for the institution is seen as shaky.

Felipe ascended to the throne in June 2014 after his father Juan Carlos, weakened physically after health issues and tainted by scandals, decided to step down following a 38-year reign.

It was the first time in five centuries that a Spanish king had abdicated in favour of his son.

The transition was handled quickly to avoid a risky debate over the continuation of the monarchy. 

“Unlike other European countries, Spain is not monarchist in its DNA,” Ana Romero, a journalist specialising in Spain's royal family, told AFP.    

Felipe “could restore dignity to the institution and behave impeccably but if part of the population insists on having a referendum to choose between having a monarchy or a republic, the outcome would not be certain”, said Romero who has just published a book about the king.

Disappointed Catalans 

Felipe is reputedly cordial, well informed and thoughtful, although less charismatic than his father, who is credited with helping to steer Spain to democracy following Franco's death.

One of Felipe's toughest moments came when he had to distance himself from his sister Princess Cristina whose husband, ex-Olympic handball player Iñaki Urdangarin, was found guilty last year of siphoning off millions of euros.    

More recently, the king's short reign has been tested by the ongoing crisis over Catalonia's breakaway attempt in December.   

On October 3rd, two days after the region held a banned independence referendum, he gave a forceful defence of national unity during a televised speech.

In his strongly worded address, Felipe said the Catalan government had “systematically violated the law, demonstrating a disloyalty that is inadmissible”.

READ MORE:  King's speech on Catalonia 'felt like a declaration of hostility'

However, he made no mention of the police violence that had marred the referendum — an omission that disappointed many Catalans who saw it as the king siding with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government.   

“The king is the head of state. It would be really strange if he did not defend the constitution and did not denounce certain events,” a royal palace spokesman said earlier this month.

'What's the monarchy for?'

Royal expert Romero said the king's speech “was decisive, to the degree that some people speak of it as the founding event” of his reign.    

“In the majority of the country it was received with great applause” except for Catalonia, as well the Basque Country and neighbouring Navarre which also have active separatist movements, she said.

The address was also denounced by the far-left Podemos party whose leader Pablo Iglesias asked during a party gathering earlier this month: “What is the monarchy for?”

Felipe's big challenge is to make Spaniards “accept the institution as something established and which will remain forever as part of history”, said Romero.

By Laurence Boutreux / AFP


FOCUS: Can Spain’s King restore faith in the monarchy?

Families are frequently a source of embarrassment, but the recent troubles caused by Spanish King Felipe VI's relatives belong to an entirely different realm.

FOCUS: Can Spain's King restore faith in the monarchy?

From expedited Covid vaccinations to tax offences and shady financial dealings by family members, Felipe has found himself in a royal mess sabotaging his efforts to clean up the image of Spain’s scandal-tainted monarchy.

It has in some ways left him tilting at windmills. Earlier controversies led to him cutting off his own father’s allowance, among other steps, but now more may be on the way, as he seeks to balance
family concerns with understandable outrage in Spain.

Last week his father, former King Juan Carlos, announced he had settled a debt of nearly 4.4 million euros ($5.3 million) with the Spanish tax office due on the value of previously undeclared private jet flights paid by a foundation based in Liechtenstein.

It was the second such tax settlement in less than three months for Juan Carlos, who went into self-exile in the United Arab Emirates in August as questions mounted over the origins of his fortune.

The former king is the target of three separate probes into his financial dealings.

And on Wednesday King Felipe’s older sisters Elena and Cristina acknowledged that they were vaccinated for the coronavirus while visiting their father in Abu Dhabi, sidestepping the immunisation queue in Spain.

The king’s spokesman stressed his sisters, just like his father, were no longer officially part of the monarchy and he was therefore not responsible for their actions.

‘Protect monarchy’

“He takes it badly, logically…because like everyone else, he has a heart” but “his role is to protect the monarchy from the storm,” journalist Jose Apezarena, the author of several books on Felipe, told AFP.

“It is clear to him that if he has to choose between the family and the monarchy, he will choose the monarchy.”

After Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 against a backdrop of scandals over his finances and love life, Felipe VI ascended the throne with the goal of restoring the monarchy’s prestige.

He promptly ordered an audit of the royal household’s accounts and issued a “code of conduct” for its members.

The following year he stripped the title of duchess from his sister Cristina who was implicated along with her husband Inaki Urdangarin in a wide-ranging case of embezzlement of public funds.

The couple stood trial in 2017. While the court acquitted Cristina, her husband is serving a jail sentence of five years and 10 months.

Last year Felipe renounced any future personal inheritance he might receive from his father, and stripped him of his annual allowance of nearly 200,000 Euros, after new details of his allegedly shady dealings emerged.

The king could be forced to go even further, according to Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“Felipe VI does not keep his family under control and their behaviour represents a huge reputation problem” for the monarchy, he said.

There will be further revelations regarding Juan Carlos’ questionable financial dealings in the coming years and Felipe will have “no alternative but to erect a clearer firewall”, such as asking the government to remove his title of king emeritus, he added.

PM under pressure

The royal scandals also put Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in an “uncomfortable situation”, said Simon.

Socialist ministers have in recent days repeatedly praised Felipe as “exemplary” even as they criticise his father’s behaviour, and the party backs the continuation of the monarchy.

But the scandals give fuel to the anti-monarchy arguments of far-left party Podemos, the junior partner in Sanchez’s minority coalition government.

Podemos, along with smaller Basque and Catalan separatist parties which help the government pass legislation in parliament, are calling for a serious debate over the future of the monarchy.

Sanchez in December referred vaguely to a “road map” to renew the Crown “in terms of transparency and exemplarity”.

If a debate over the monarchy’s future were to open it would lead to “the fracture of the majority supporting the government”, said Simon.