Flags, cheers greet Spain's new King Felipe VI

19th June 2014, Comments 0 comments

Spain's new King Felipe VI vowed to clean up the scandal-tainted monarchy as he launched his reign on Thursday, cheered on by crowds of revellers waving red and yellow flags.

Thousands of Spaniards put aside their World Cup misery to line the sun-splashed streets of Madrid, yelling "Long live the king!" as Felipe, 46, and his glamorous Queen Letizia, 41, waved from an open-topped Rolls Royce.

A tall, former Olympic yachtsman, Felipe faces the task of polishing the image of the monarchy and winning over a country wearied by recession and political corruption.

He swore an oath to serve the nation in parliament in a dark blue military uniform, standing by the royal sceptre and crown -- though it was not actually placed on his head.

The king promised "a renewed monarchy for new times", after scandals that damaged the image of his abdicated father, Juan Carlos, 76.

Felipe also pledged his "faith in the unity of Spain", where separatist tensions are high in the northeastern region of Catalonia.

Lawmakers applauded as he finished his speech and turned to kiss Letizia -- a former television newsreader -- who wore a white knee-length dress and coat by Spanish designer Felipe Varela.

The king stood and waved from the black Rolls, flanked by guards on horseback with silver helmets and breastplates winking in the sun, as he was driven through central Madrid to the old Royal Palace where a crowd of thousands awaited.

The royal couple waved to the cheering crowds from the balcony of the palace with their blonde, blue-eyed daughters: eight-year-old Leonor, now heiress to the throne, and Sofia, seven.

Joined briefly on the balcony by Juan Carlos and Felipe's mother Queen Sofia, the couple then went inside and shook hands one by one with some 2,000 guests at a reception.

- Never mind the football -

The celebrations offered a distraction from the national gloom of Spain's humiliating exit from the football World Cup on Wednesday in a 2-0 beating by Chile.

"We have lost the World Cup but that doesn't matter. It is a new day and a new king. We have to celebrate," said Eduardo Chaperon, 24, waving a Spanish flag and wearing a novelty inflatable crown in the street.

Not everyone joined in the party.

Police blocked off Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square to prevent a rally by protesters who want Spain to be a republic.

"It is shameful. It is a breach of our freedoms. What kind of democracy is this?" said Juana Leon, a 69-year-old retiree wrapped in the red, yellow and purple Spanish republican flag.

"We spend a lot of money on all this but it doesn't serve Spain at all," she said of the royal family.

Protesters have demanded a referendum on the monarchy's future.

Felipe said in his proclamation speech however that he believed "the parliamentary monarchy can and must continue to provide a fundamental service to Spain".

Political leaders in the northeastern Catalonia region meanwhile are calling for a referendum on independence from Spain.

In the central Catalan town of Cervera, customers sat reading with their backs to the television as Felipe's speech came on.

"Here in Catalonia, we are not monarchists, nor fans of the Spain football team," said the bar's owner, Josep Clos.

"This king is just another one who is going to live off our money."

- Tearful handover -

In tough economic times, celebrations were relatively restrained compared to other European royal coronations, however, and no foreign leaders or royals were invited.

The palace offered drinks and nibbles at the reception, but no sit-down banquet.

The crowds in the streets were colourful and noisy but not as big as in other recent celebrations such as Spain's Euro football championship triumph in 2012.

On Wednesday, a teary-eyed Juan Carlos, 76, ended his reign with a stroke of a golden pen as he signed his act of abdication.

Juan Carlos, who walks with a cane after repeated hip operations, hugged Felipe and briefly gripped his son's arm to steady himself in his final act as monarch.

The former king earned broad respect for helping guide Spain to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 and for thwarting an attempted military coup in 1981.

But he has suffered from a scandal over an elephant-hunting safari he took in 2012 and fraud allegations against his youngest daughter Cristina, 49, and her husband.

Felipe's popularity rating has actually climbed amid the scandals, however.

"It feels like the end of a cycle," said Jose Antonio Gomez, who runs a drinks stall outside the old Royal Palace.

"It is good to have a new king. His father did it very well and Felipe knows how to solve Spain's problems: Catalonia, the crisis. At least I hope he does."

© 2014 AFP

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