High-profile marriage split adds to Spanish royal family's woes

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The Independent Online

Princess Elena, the eldest daughter of Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, is to separate from her husband, in the first case of marital breakdown the immediate Spanish royal family has experienced. After 12 years of marriage, the princess, fourth in line to the throne, is leaving the home she shared with Jaime de Marichalar, taking the couple's two children with her.

The separation is the latest misfortune in what is becoming an annus horribilis for the Spanish royals, who had, with the exception of some minor members, avoided the domestic upheavals and embarrassing headlines associated with their British counterparts.

But yesterday's front pages were awash with photographs of the couple looking glumly away from each other, as happened to the Prince and Princess of Wales before their divorce.

The couple do not plan to divorce, just "a temporary cessation of conjugal living". But it has been common knowledge for months that the royal couple, who married in Seville Cathedral in 1995, have been leading separate lives for some time.

Rumours of imminent separation circulated since August. To stem the gossip, the couple stepped up public appearances, but looked stiff and uncomfortable. Princess Elena opted for a de facto – rather than formal – separation, to avoid compounding the crown's problems at a difficult time, La Vanguardia reported.

The brief palace announcement on Tuesday evening came after King Juan Carlos became embroiled in a slanging match on Saturday with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The repercussions of that ill-tempered exchange at an Ibero-American summit in Santiago de Chile – during which King Juan Carlos told Mr Chavez to "shut up" – continued to rumble yesterday. Some Spanish companies with investments in Venezuela feared Mr Chavez might take reprisals.

News of the royal separation came as a court imposed a €3,000 (£2,140) fine on the authors of a cartoon published in the satirical magazine El Jueves. It showed Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia having sex, with the caption: "Do you realise, if I get you pregnant, it will be the closest thing to real work that I have done in my life."

The cartoonists said their work poked fun at the ¿2,500 (£1,761) which Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has promised to families for having a child, but the judge said they were guilty of "insulting the Crown Prince".

And the royal woes do not end there. Radical Catalans have burnt photographs of the king in their campaign for independence, while right-wing media commentators criticised royal overspending and called on Juan Carlos to abdicate.

Last week, King Mohamed of Morocco criticised as "regrettable" a high-profile visit by the Spanish king and queen to Spain's North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are both claimed by Morocco.

Princess Elena was the first of the monarch's children to marry, and produced their first grandchild, Felipe Juan Froilan, now nine, followed by Victoria Federica, seven. The Spanish throne passes through the male line, so Elena's brother Felipe is heir, with his two daughters next in line.

The couple's problems started in December 2001 when Don Jaime suffered a brain haemorrhage while training at the gym. Eighteen months later he suffered a further vascular problem. The couple moved to New York for treatment, and the Duke of Lugo – the title conferred by the king before the couple married – fell into prolonged depression. He is expected to drop from public view, and concentrate on his extensive business interests.