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King Juan Carlos: unprecedented apology speaks to royals' changed image (+video)

King Juan Carlos apologized for taking a lavish hunting vacation amid sharp austerity cuts. Recent scandals have tested popular faith in the monarchy, seen as a unifier in post-Franco Spain.

By Correspondent / April 18, 2012

Spain's King Juan Carlos prepares to leave a hospital in Madrid on Wednesday, April 18. King Juan Carlos says he is sorry for having gone on lavish hunting vacation.

Paco Campos/AP

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Madrid

“I’m sorry. I was wrong and it won’t happen again,” Spain's King Juan Carlos said today on camera.

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Spain's King Juan Carlos issues a brief, unprecedented apology.

It is the first public apology by a Spanish monarch in history, coming in response to an equally unprecedented public clamor for humility from the crown.

The royal apology followed several days of intense public pressure after King Juan Carlos – beloved and respected by the majority in Spain – went elephant hunting in Botswana, reportedly on the dime of a Saudi Arabian businessman, and accidentally broke his hip. The trip became public when he had to be rushed to a Madrid hospital and pictures of him posing with a dead elephant went viral.

The uproar triggered extremely rare criticism that mushroomed quickly, from discreet comments by political leaders to popular chatter on Twitter and condemnation on talk shows. Several politicians openly called for his the king's abdication – a demand not made in nearly a century, and one that is rocking the pillars of an already shaky establishment. 

King Juan Carlos is much more than a figurehead monarch. He is credited with being a unifying presence in Spain and is, to most, a guarantor of Spanish national identity.

“This has been a big blow,” says Carmen Enríquez, a journalist who has written about the royal family for more than 15 years, publishing several books along the way. “Many people are upset, including myself, and I’m a big supporter of the crown. But others are also taking advantage of this to attack the royal family, and they forget all they have done for us.”

“This is the first time a king apologizes. And it means that, faced with public uproar, in the media, on the street, everywhere, he has understood he made a big mistake. And the best thing to do was to own up to it.”

More than a king

King Juan Carlos is Spain's first royal leader since the monarchy was restored in 1978. It was abolished in 1931, after Spaniards voted in a republican government. Dictator General Francisco Franco, who rose to power in after defeating the government in the Spanish Civil War, named Juan Carlos prince in 1969, and Franco’s hand-picked heir. He became head of state in 1975 after Franco’s death.

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