THE recent weeks in Spain have been dominated by talk of King Juan Carlos, on the 10th anniversary last month of his accession to the throne. The country is also alive with discussion about the relative benefits of liberal democracy under Juan Carlos vs. the mild-mannered authoritarianism of the later Franco years. Unlike the rest of Western Europe, viable democracy here was only a dream until a decade ago. Even as late as 1981, there was a coup attempt against the government which was defeated only by Juan Carlos's personal intervention. Today, relatively few Spaniards still contest the legitimacy of the Constitution, but many grumble quietly that the country is worse off now than under the iron-handed caudillo.
The economic situation is bad, with unemployment at 18 percent. The problem is that during the Franco years, heavily protected Spanish industry built a number of technological dinosaurs, such as giant steelworks, shipyards, and car factories. These factories are finding it difficult to export against third-world competition, and they are certain to face further dislocation when Madrid joins the European Community in January.
Too, Spanish tourism seems to have reached a peak after heavy growth in the '60s and '70s. Today's European tourists, better traveled than a generation ago, appear to want something besides the endless rows of hotels and beaches one finds on the Costa del Sol and the Costa Brava. Spanish tourist authorities are redirecting their promotional activities toward historic inland towns like Toledo, but the verdict is still out on their efforts.
Even more worrisome, democratic Spain has seen an upsurge in crime and drug abuse that many traditional Spaniards attribute to lax Western morals. A decade ago Spain was Europe's most conservative major country, with heavy church influence, notably in education. Even today, in many Spanish towns such as Toledo, the great majority of children attend church-run schools, while priests regularly preach against such ``evils'' as discos.
Three years ago, when Premier Felipe Gonz'alez's Socialists came to power, the police were instructed to deal more leniently with ``soft'' drug offenders, antipornography laws were loosened, and a host of new cabarets opened with acts that would have been unthinkable under Franco. But if such social changes have brought new worries, the enduring popularity of Juan Carlos has helped to calm his countrymen's fears. Considered something of a lightweight a decade ago (Madrileos joked that he would be known as ``Juan the Brief''), the monarch now commands almost universal respect.
Former Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo even apologized to the King for having called him a ``Francoist puppet'' in 1975; he later told Juan Carlos, ``Your Majesty, you saved my life by forcing down the coup attempt.''
Another test for Juan Carlos was in 1982, when Mr. Gonz'alez came to power. Even though Spanish Socialists had renounced Marxism and were less radical than their French counterparts, Spaniards shuddered for a few days while they awaited military reaction. In fact, there was none, and Gonz'alez was able to appoint a defense minister who had never served in the military.
As the country anticipates its EC entry, the challenge to both Juan Carlos and Gonz'alez is less dramatic than a military coup, but it is hardly less difficult.
Spain will be a strong competitor in traditional Mediterranean produce, but its very success is liable to provoke an outcry among farmers in other EC countries, just as the huge Spanish fishing armada has given rise to apprehension in European fishing towns.
Though the industrial picture is less promising, there is reason to believe that EC access will provide an increased incentive for Japanese and American companies to invest here. Indeed, many Europeans have been surprised to see Spanish workers praised by several Japanese executives, who declared, ``The Spanish are the hardest workers in Europe,'' thus challenging an old stereotype about sleepy Mediterraneans.
Americans, too, have a stake in Spain's future, for several strategic reasons. One is that the Spaniards still see themselves as a link between the developed world and Latin America, a concept they call hispanidad. Washington generally welcomes Madrid's encouragement of Latin American democracies, though the two have clashed over Nicaragua.
More important, Spain is the newest member of the NATO alliance, and although it is outside the integrated military command, it adds powerful depth to the Western position. Gonz'alez has promised to hold a referendum on NATO membership next spring and is maneuvering adroitly to produce a pro-alliance vote. The problem is that the Spanish left (including Communists and most Socialists) is strongly opposed to NATO membership, while much of the right is only slightly more enthusiastic.
Indeed, decades of anti-American propaganda by Francoists appear to have taken their toll; many Spaniards now believe that the United States -- with its problems of crime, drug abuse, and now AIDS -- is a society careering toward disaster.
One tangible bit of assistance Washington could give pro-NATO groups would be to reduce the size of the American military contingent here. As is often the case, the more than 14,000 American personnel stationed at four military bases and six communications facilities have too high a visibility. Complaints about American behavior are a frequent feature in the press, and Washington would be well advised to cut American forces here by one-third before the spring referendum. Then Gonz'alez would be able to balance his display of ``toughness'' toward the US with an appeal to his countrymen to remain within the alliance.
Whatever the referendum's outcome, there is little question that Spain will continue to be the European country in the throes of the most rapid and far-reaching social and economic change.
Yet one has only to survey a medieval city like Toledo to appreciate the solidity of timeless Spanish values. Quintessential Spanish activities such as bullfighting may be in decline, but something in the country's soul is as permanent as this imperial city's old walls. The people here know they are fortunate to have a King who incarnates both traditional Spanish values and modern democratic practices.
Kevin Michel Cape is a French-American writer