The king is naked

The timing of Don Juan Carlos’ hunting accident accentuates a sense of institutional decay

The old royal necropolis of in the Basilica of St Denis in northern Paris contains a fine expression of the theory of the king's two bodies. On the upper part of each tomb the monarch and his partner appear in the pomp of life; under the canopy, recumbent statues show them in the physical decay of age, barely veiled, hence the term naked kings. A duality still with us: under the political personality of the crowned head lies his human condition. Does this mean that the king's public and private are all one, down to his most intimate actions? Not exactly. But it does imply that the private sphere is subordinate to the Crown's requirements of dignity. Especially when the media make his life a fishbowl. And as the vicissitudes of the British royal house have shown, popularity may give way to a bad press and to public irritation.

Something of this sort has lately affected the image of Don Juan Carlos, his recent accident while on safari coming after a series of events increasingly unfavorable to the Royal Household and to himself. The apology offered at the hospital door is as simple as it is easy. Juan Carlos, without his pomp, appears before the public as a naked king, in his condition as an apparently naïve and contrite man, who has been a bad boy and begs forgiveness, of the citizens as if of his parents, and suitably promises he won't do it again. The responsibilities are not specified, and he wisely avoids any allusion to his kingly dignity, which would have created an impression of distancing, thus favoring rejection in his listeners.

In this way the wound to public affection for the king may heal, though such a result is by no means certain in other aspects of the episode. Firstly, we have to distinguish between the escapade itself and its purpose. In the second aspect the damage is irreparable and deserved. When every educated person now pays at least lip service to the defense of endangered species, the king goes off killing elephants in a Bantustan. We hear, too, of how in the Carpathian forest he did away with several brown bears, a species already afflicted by the sadism of Ceausescu, who liked to shoot them from a helicopter. Outrageous.

The driving force of Spanish republicanism has been a succession of morally and intellectually contemptible monarchs

As for the love of escapade, it has been there ever since his days as prince, when the police minders set on him by the Franco regime came to loathe his propensity to give them the slip. Then came the motorcycles and the feminine encounters. Understandable, but with two drawbacks: the jeopardizing of his own security - which in passing suggests the desirability of institutionalizing the role of crown prince as a replacement - and the travel expenses, which fall upon the taxpayers, in a time of crisis. Another factor of embarrassment.

Remember that in the history of Spain, from Ferdinand VII to Alfonso XIII, not to mention the sentimentally unstable Isabel II, the principal driving force of republicanism has been a succession of monarchs as morally and intellectually contemptible as they were noxious to the country. In England, Elizabeth II inherits the grandeur of Queen Victoria. In Spain, in spite of his undeniable services in the transition to democracy, Juan Carlos I owes his throne to Franco. Hence both he and Prince Felipe have most to lose should the Nóos corruption case turn out to affect the Crown. Meanwhile the German diplomatic papers, now accessible, which question the king's attitude during the 1981 coup attempt, warrant careful examination.

Finally there remains the two-percent budget cut for the Royal Household, which looks as ugly for the government as for its recipient. It shows the king sitting at the top of a social pyramid of enormous inequality, in the Spain of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The definition of privilege made by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès in 1789 still seems to apply.