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Queen Letizia and Queen Sofía Face Off, and Spain Is Aghast

Most royal families are opaque, their public appearances carefully choreographed, any hint of family discord masked.

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Most royal families are opaque, their public appearances carefully choreographed, any hint of family discord masked.

But the Spanish royal family made headlines this week after unusual footage emerged Tuesday of an encounter between Queen Sofía and her daughter-in-law, Queen Letizia, on Easter Sunday.

Local news outlets speculated that a simmering royal argument had spilled — embarrassingly — into the open after a Mass at Palma Cathedral in Mallorca.

The footage spread quickly on social media, with the Spanish newspaper El País calling the scene “tense” and the Diario de Mallorca describing it as “uncomfortable.”

Few outside the family seem to know exactly what was behind the encounter.

Nonetheless, what the cameras showed looked awkward, at best.

Sofía, 79, puts her arms around her granddaughters, princesses Leonor and Sofía, and gathers them close, apparently to have a photograph taken.

Letizia, 45, the girls’ mother and the wife of King Felipe VI, then moves in front of the three, stepping this way and that — movements interpreted by news outlets as trying to block the photograph. Queen Sofía reacts by shuffling back and forth and clutching the girls ever more tightly.

Letizia reaches out to brush the hair of Leonor, who, at the same time, pushes Queen Sofía’s arm away. A few words seem to be exchanged, and Leonor again removes her grandmother’s hand from her shoulder. There have been no reports of what the two queens said.

Felipe, 50, steps in and squeezes his wife’s shoulder, seemingly in an effort to calm things down, and the royal mask quickly snaps back into place. The royal family, which later posed together for a photograph outside the church, has made no official comment on the episode.

But gossip apparently exists even among the tangled branches of European royal family trees. Crown Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, the wife of Queen Sofía’s nephew Crown Prince Pavlos, weighed in on Twitter: “No grandmother deserves that type of treatment!”

Others took to social media to make the point that there were more pressing problems facing Spain than discord among a family — even a royal one.

In the days since, Felipe and his wife have carried on calmly, appearing at a Mass commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of King Juan Carlos I’s father.

The royals rarely get together, and to paraphrase Tolstoy, while all happy families are alike, this seemingly unhappy family has had its own political trials and tribulations.

Felipe ascended the throne after his father, Juan Carlos, who helped usher the country toward democracy, announced in 2014 that he would abdicate.

The royal family was rocked in 2016 by tax fraud allegations against Princess Cristina, the sister of Felipe. She was tried and acquitted on charges of corruption and embezzlement tied to an investigation into her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, and his business associates. Urdangarin is appealing his prison sentence.

The country at large is in the throes of bigger problems, not least a political crisis unleashed by the failed attempt at secession by the government of the restive region of Catalonia.

Felipe stepped into the fray when, in a televised address after a Catalan referendum on secession last year, a vote which went ahead despite Spanish courts having ruled it unconstitutional, he accused Catalonia’s separatist leaders of “inadmissible disloyalty” and of threatening the country’s constitution and unity.

Recently, two Catalans — Enric Stern and Jaume Roura — were sentenced to 15 months in prison for insulting the monarchy, a felony, after setting fire to a life-size, upside-down photo of the royal couple during a visit by Juan Carlos to the northeastern city of Girona in September 2007.

The sentence was later reduced to a fine of about $3,300 each. The defendants took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled this year that the act was justifiable political criticism.

In an analysis about the Easter encounter, El País recalled how Sofía had helped usher Letizia, a former television journalist, into the royal family. Relations between the two have been deteriorating since the birth of the younger princesses.

Now, the newspaper concluded, “15 years have passed and things have changed.”

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