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King of Spain shoots himself in foot

King Juan Carlos under fire for enjoying an elephant hunting safari, while the nation suffers economic woes..

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In one fell swoop, King Juan Carlos of Spain has managed to unite right and left, young and old, those with jobs and those without in universal outrage over his tone-deaf African hunting safari.

As Spain foundered amid economic woes, what did the 74-year-old monarch do? He slipped away to hunt elephants in southern Africa.

Let's count the ways that miscalculation of elephantine proportions has turned into a public relations disaster:

Scandal ... King Juan Carlos.

Scandal ... King Juan Carlos. Photo: AP

- A lavish trip amid severe economic pain at home

Interest rates for Spanish bonds have risen alarmingly in recent days, with fears mounting that the country could be the next in Europe to need a bailout. Not exactly the right time to go on an exotic holiday that one major newspaper estimated could cost twice a Spanish worker's average annual wages.

Spain is also struggling with 23 per cent unemployment - the highest in the 17-nation eurozone - which soars to nearly 50 per cent for young workers. The trip makes the king's earlier comments about how he can't sleep at night thinking about the country's unemployed ring rather hollow.

"Awful. I think what the king did is awful," said Angelica Diaz, a 70-year-old homemaker pushing a baby stroller in Madrid. "Because of the lack of solidarity with people here who are going hungry. What he did is wrong. He has to show more humanity."

- A secret trip that even the government did not know about

This particular trip - it is not clear if taxpayer money was used - only became public when the king stumbled and fell before dawn on Friday at his bungalow in Botswana and fractured his right hip, forcing an emergency flight home and hip replacement surgery.

The El Mundo newspaper said the king had not told Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government of his trip abroad until after the accident.

"The prime minister must know at all times where the head of state is," El Mundo said in an editorial.

- A trip that just adds to royal family gaffes

Juan Carlos's family has been in the news lately - for all the wrong reasons. The king's son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, is a suspect in a corruption case, accused of using his position to embezzle several million euros in public contracts through a not-for-profit foundation he ran.

Over Easter, the king's 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot with a shotgun, even though by law in Spain you must be 14 to handle a gun. The boy's father could face a fine.

- A trip that even outraged longtime supporters

The conservative newspaper El Mundo ran a cartoon with two scenes: the king's crown on the ground and the word "Bang! above it" - the loud report of an elephant gun - then the pachyderm thudding to the ground and smashing the crown to bits.

The paper said the king has done a lot for Spain, especially overseeing its transition to democracy after the death of longtime dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975. But its lead editorial on Sunday read "An irresponsible trip at the worst possible time."

Juan Carlos should "admit his mistake and learn from what happened," the paper said, sounding as if it were admonishing a child.

- A trip that blasts a hole in the king's conservation credentials

The king is an honorary president of the Spanish branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature - which could raise questions about why an alleged conservation enthusiast is killing some of the most intelligent animals on the planet.

- A trip that leaves Spain with a fill-in monarch

With his father now out on medical leave for at least a month, 44-year-old Crown Prince Felipe is filling in. No one of any real import is calling for the king to step aside, but some have taken the very rare step of urging him to apologise.

"It would not be a bad idea," Patxi Lopez, president of the Basque region, said on Monday. "In these hard times, there are things people just do not understand and this is one of them."

Javier del Rey, a professor of political communications at Complutense University in Madrid, said Spaniards are not pro-monarchy at heart. Rather, they accept the king without a lot of questions largely out of gratitude: he was key to putting down an attempted coup in 1981, just four years into Spain's fledgling democracy, by army officers nostalgic for dictator Franco's rule.

His father, widely known as Don Juan, never ruled as king. Juan Carlos's grandfather, Alfonso XIII, fled the country in 1931 after anti-monarchy parties won a local election. The king was groomed by Franco to become head of state upon the latter's death, which ended four decades of rightwing rule.

But del Rey said the king could not have shown poorer lack of judgment with his elephant-hunting trip. He does not expect the king to abdicate, although he said it would the "elegant" thing to do.

He said Felipe must be livid - both with his father and with his brother-in-law Urdangarin - for making the royal family look so bad.

"He knows that there are things which are not inherited," del Rey said. "To some extent, the monarchy is a daily plebiscite, not just an inheritance you are entitled to."

AP