THE HANDOVER OF THE SPANISH THRONE

A queen with a mind of her own

Letizia has made the new king more approachable, though the public often views her as cold

SCHIAMARELLA

Barely a decade has passed since a newsreader on Spanish television became the Princess of Asturias. Now, Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, the daughter of a telecommunications company executive and a labor union representative, has become Queen Letizia. She has made it clear that while she will support her husband in his endeavors, she also intends to set her own agenda.

When she first arrived at the Spanish royal family’s official residence, the Zarzuela Palace, she followed the advice and example of Queen Sofía, although it soon became clear that the two women were very different. Over the years, their relationship has settled into one that might best be described as amicable but distanced.

The same could be said of the public relationship between King Juan Carlos and Sofía: for many years, the former queen has only accompanied her husband on official visits when required by protocol to do so. But Felipe and Letizia have other plans.

Since moving into the Zarzuela Palace, Letizia has kept a low profile, but now that her husband’s moment has come, she too is ready to step into the limelight.

Felipe has always admired his wife’s determination and resolve, say close friends

When she was first being presented in society by her husband-to-be, the couple met with a broad cross-section of Spanish society, along with many politicians. At those first gatherings, Letizia seemed to speak her mind, expressing her views on the need for education and health reform, for example.

Some people, particularly on the left, were surprised at what they saw as her open-mindedness, progressive views, and informality, famously telling Felipe not to interrupt her on the day that their engagement was announced. But it would seem that she was politely told to keep her opinions to herself, for the moment.

Friends say that Felipe and Letizia have been strait-jacketed by their official roles, overshadowed by the former king and queen. But now what they say and do will be their own responsibility.

Even her critics accept that she has exercised a positive influence over Felipe; her position as a divorced commoner has, they say, brought the couple closer to ordinary people. They are frequently seen out and about in Madrid, going to the movies and dining in small restaurants, or shopping with their two daughters: very much the life of a typical middle-class family. Before he met Letizia, Felipe’s circle of friends consisted largely of the wealthy and powerful; but now it has extended to include Letizia’s, a much more down-to-earth group.

In the weeks leading up to the coronation, Letizia has made her voice increasingly heard. At work meetings attended by the small group of people organizing the event, she has openly expressed her opinion. Felipe has always admired his wife’s determination and resolve, say close friends. She is his chief advisor, the person he listens to most, and nobody has any doubts that, as well as at the official level, she will have played a key role in mapping out their future in private.

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For example, she is a firm believer in the need for Felipe to be seen in public more often, as well as to listen to ordinary people’s concerns; protocol needs to be relaxed, and they need to be seen as accessible. Sources at the Zarzuela describe the difference in style between Letizia and her mother-in-law: “With Sofía it was plenty of time spent greeting people, followed by a short event; with Letizia it is the other way round.”

Like her husband, the new queen is famous for asking lots of questions, and always does her homework before official engagements.

The same desire to appear perfect before the cameras in public is reflected in her preparations for official events. Education and health – particularly nutrition, rare diseases and cancer – are her areas of special interest. But her first major official engagement will be when she opens an exhibition at the Prado Museum in Madrid dedicated to El Greco and his influence on modern painters on Monday.

Her biggest priority is how to improve the royal family’s poor standing in the opinion polls, and in particular, her own lack of popularity among the general public. She is seen as lacking spontaneity – perhaps the result of being told early on that she must take a back seat – and as someone overly concerned with her image. Having played the waiting game, and won her place in the royal palace, she must now win over the Spanish people.

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