MADRID, Oct 2 (Reuters) The king of Spain has publicly defended the monarchy after his photograph was burnt in a wave of republican protests.
''Parliamentary monarchy has provided the longest period of stability and prosperity in democracy in Spanish history,'' King Juan Carlos said in a speech in the northern city of Oviedo.
Juan Carlos is a generally popular figure whose state role is symbolic, and he is widely respected for his part in quelling an attempted military coup in 1981.
Recently he has been targeted by nationalists in Catalonia where youths have burnt his picture. A minority of Catalan politicians are calling for independence from Spain, causing indignation among conservative Spaniards already outraged by separatists in the Basque Country.
The issue of how to deal with restive Catalans and Basques is set to dominate March's national election, and the conservative Popular Party has accused the Socialist government of failing to defend Spanish national unity.
Seeing his image incinerated has not been the only affront suffered by Juan Carlos. In July, a judge ordered police to remove copies of a humorous magazine from news stands after it printed a cartoon of Crown Prince Felipe having sex with his wife on its front cover.
Outside Catalonia and the Basque Country, the king remains popular. One opinion poll placed the monarchy as the third most trusted institution in the country, ahead of the government, parliament and the courts.
Juan Carlos earned the gratitude of many Spaniards for his role in the transition to democracy after dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975. This feeling deepened when he ordered rebellious soldiers back to barracks in 1981.
LIMITED FUNCTIONS Since then, his functions have been largely limited to ceremony as well as appearances at dinners and sporting events.
While Spanish glossy magazines pack their pages with pictures of the royal family, their tone is generally respectful and discreet, in contrast to the way the British press treats the UK monarchy.
The government is hoping the flag-burning protests will fizzle out of their own accord and has criticised news media for giving them so much attention.
''The institution of the monarchy is strong, in very good health, and that's the opinion of most people,'' said Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega last week.
Apart from republicanism in Catalonia, where most people vote for parties which do not want to leave Spain, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is also facing a direct challenge to his authority from the Basque Country.
The Basque regional government has announced a referendum for October next year which could potentially start preparations for independence. Zapatero has rejected the plan as illegal.
REUTERS ARB RAI1822