Queen Sofia puts Spain’s monarchy in firing line
Published on 03/11/2008
MADRID – During her 33 years as queen, Sofia of Spain had been known for her gentleness and discretion.
But at the time of her 70th birthday, the Greek-born wife of King Juan Carlos stunned the country with a sudden outburst of outspokenness, reigniting a debate about the role of the monarchy.
The queen opened up to journalist Pilar Urbano, whose book was published just ahead of Sofia’s birthday on Sunday, and continued sparking controversy on Monday.
The book, The Queen Up Close, has been described as the most controversial on a member of the royal family and depicts Queen Sofia in a different light.
Unlike the amicably distant figure who is usually seen smiling on the pages of glossy magazines, the queen comes alive as a traditional and conservative woman with strong views on issues such as a 2005 law that gave homosexuals full marriage rights.
"I can understand … that there are people with other sexual orientations," Sofia told Urbano.
"But should they feel proud of that? Should they climb on top of cars and hold parades?" she asked. "If everyone who wasn’t gay rallied through the streets, traffic would come to a standstill."
Sofia said she felt gay unions should not be called marriages.
She also expressed opposition to abortion, which has been legal in Spain for two decades; euthanasia, which Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist government is considering legalising; and advocated the teaching of religion at schools, which the govern
ment has downgraded.
The queen even commented on foreign policy, accusing US President George W Bush of having implicated "a whole lot of allied countries in wars of revenge and destruction" after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
The queen’s comments were widely seen as coming at an unfortunate time for the Spanish monarchy, which had already come under rare criticism in 2007, with separatists in the north-eastern region of Catalonia burning pictures of the royal couple.
A sexual caricature on Crown Prince Felipe and the king’s rebuff to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whom he told to "shut up" instead of criticising a former Spanish premier at an Ibero-American summit, added to the controversy.
The queen represented an institution that was above politics, and did not have the right to criticise policies that had been adopted democratically by parliament, commentators said.
"It is impossible (for the queen) to represent all Spaniards if (she) sides with what (only) some of them think," the daily El Pais said in an editorial.
The daily also pointed out that appreciation for the monarchy was declining among young people, who had not seen Juan Carlos thwart a 1981 coup attempt.
The king’s courage at that time earned him the admiration of his subjects despite his having acceded to the throne by the will of dictator Francisco Franco at the latter’s death in 1975.
"The queen is a 70-year-old Catholic woman, and she has said what many 70-year-old Spanish Catholic women think," said Esteban Gonzalez Pons of the main opposition People’s Party (PP).
Pons, whose party is close to the conservative views expressed by the queen, later tried to retract his critical comments.
A Socialist spokesman in the Catalan regional parliament advised the queen to "shut up," like the king had told Chavez.
The Socialist government, however, described the queen as being "very highly appreciated by Spaniards," while others defended Sofia’s freedom of opinion.
"The queen says what she thinks and she does it divinely," said the king’s sister Pilar de Borbon. "The queen can express her views as a private person," a Madrid lawyer said.
Worried about the storm sparked by Sofia’s comments, the Zarzuela palace issued a statement saying Urbano had not reported them in an "exact" manner and that they had been made "privately" by the queen.
But Urbano, who already published a biography of Sofia in 1997, stood by her book, which had initially been given the green light by the palace.
The affair reignited the debate about the monarchy, which gay activist Beatriz Gimeno slammed as an "absurdly anachronistic institution opposed to any social progress" such as gay rights.
Now that the queen had broken the rules that "theoretically place (the royals) above earthly squabbles, what are they good for?" republican columnist Pilar Rahola asked.
The Basque branch of the far-left party Izquierda Unida on Monday urged the Basque regional parliament to recognise "the legitimacy of the republic as an alternative to the monarchy".
Yet polls continue showing a high level of support for the monarchy, and Sofia told Urbano she trusted that criticism would pass.
The pictures of royals that had been burned in Catalonia were just "pieces of paper," the queen said.
text: Sinikka Tarvainen / dpa
photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons-licensed content