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Ferraris gone as Spain king polishes image

Madrid (AFP) - Six months into his reign, Spain's King Felipe VI is gently polishing the monarchy's scandal-hit image, getting rid of royal Ferraris and publishing palace accounts -- but critics are demanding he try harder.

Friday will mark exactly half a year since 46-year-old Felipe took over the throne, vowing "to make Spaniards feel proud of their king". Now as he prepares for his first Christmas king's speech on December 24, his record is under scrutiny.

The crown's popularity ratings appear to have strengthened, but anti-monarchist feeling rumbles on in some quarters. And not all of the scandals that marred the years leading up to the abdication of Felipe's father Juan Carlos have gone away.

Juan Carlos outraged Spaniards in 2012 by going elephant hunting in Botswana at the height of Spain's recession. Separately, Felipe's sister Cristina has been accused in a corruption probe targeting her husband.

When Felipe took over the throne, supporters hoped he, his former newsreader wife Letizia, 41, and their two blonde daughters, nine-year-old Leonor and Sofia, seven, could freshen the monarchy's image.

- King or 'slacker'? -

The new king has since taken steps to make the royal household more transparent. He launched a new palace code of conduct and published details of its spending.

Felipe ordered members of the royal family not to accept any extravagant gifts. Any official presents they receive must now be donated to national heritage.

The palace has ceded to the state two deluxe Ferrari cars that were given to Juan Carlos by an Arab sheikh and are now to be auctioned, palace sources told AFP.

Media have estimated the ex-king's fortune at $2.3 billion (1.7 billion euros). The palace denies that figure, saying it includes assets that actually belong to the state.

When Juan Carlos abdicated, the monarchy's popularity rating among Spaniards was down to about a third, according to the national social research institute CIS.

Recent opinion polls in various newspapers indicate that Felipe has reversed that decline. One survey in conservative paper La Razon gave Felipe a 72-percent popularity rating.

One royal expert, Antonio del Moral, said Felipe is doing "what the Spanish monarchy needed to do to win back a bit of the prestige it had lost over the past two or three years".

But Jordi Matas, a political scientist at Barcelona University, branded Felipe "the slacker-king".

"Everything is exactly the same or worse, and the new monarchy's influence cannot be seen anywhere. A lot of talk, but few results," Matas wrote in El Pais newspaper.

- Royalists and republicans -

With limited, mostly ceremonial powers as the head of Spain's parliamentary monarchy, Felipe has kept largely out of politics.

He has spoken cautiously on Spain's most sensitive current political issue, however: the drive for independence in Catalonia.

Since becoming king he has made three trips to the northeastern region, where he has called for unity.

The government moved swiftly to get Felipe on the throne in June, defying street protesters who demanded a referendum on making Spain a republic.

But the republican undertow in Spain "is still very much alive," said Moral.

Spain's two main political forces, the governing conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialists, have backed the monarchy since Spain's transition from dictatorship in the late 1970s.

But the political landscape is changing fast. According to recent polls, the two big parties together have less than half of the vote.

The left-wing protest party Podemos is now a serious challenger ahead of next year's general election.

Its leader Pablo Iglesias has called for a referendum on whether to keep the monarchy.

"It should be part of the our country's past, not its future," he said.