The events in Catalunya over recent weeks have made muted headlines here in France. It began when French President Emmanuel Macron said that he has confidence in Mariano Rajoy’s determination to defend the interests of all of Spain. He added he saw Spain as a partner of and that Rajoy manages Spain’s internal affairs as well as possible. Macron said: “My principle is simple, we cannot give lessons between member-states.”
He has since expressed his support for Spain’s constitutional unity in a telephone conversation with Rajoy on 2 October. Although hundreds of people were injured on the Sunday when police tried to disrupt the independence referendum a spokesman still said: “The president underlined his support for Spain’s constitutional unity,” without any reference to the tactics used by Spanish police.
Macron knows that there is relatively little sympathy among most French citizens but that nationalists like Marine Le Pen and separatist groups in Bretagne, the Basque region, Alsace, Corsica and amongst Occitan and Flemish speakers who have been silent for some time may feed on the Spanish situation.
Catalans in France
There is a sizeable Catalan population in France. Northern Catalonia, Catalunya Nord or Catalogne Nord, is the territory ceded to France by Spain through the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. It more or less corresponds to the French département Pyrénées-Orientales. Catalunya Nord is the term coined in the 1930s by the Catalan nationalist Alfons Miàs. The French, Catalogne Nord, is usually used nowadays, although less often than the more politically neutral Roussillon (in reference to the pre-Revolutionary province). In 1700, the government of Louis XIV prohibited the use of Catalan in official documents although the government seldom enforced that edict throughout the 18 century. In the 1950s, after around two centuries, Catalan was permitted to be taught for an hour per week in secondary school. In the 1970s, the Arrels Association and la Bressola network of private schools started to offer complete bilingual French/Catalan classes from nursery up to secondary education. French is the only official language in France however Catalan, at least the Northern Catalan dialect, is recognised as a regional language in Languedoc-Roussillon, thus benefits from cultural support in education and public media. Increased regional power since the laws of regionalisation during the 1980s has allowed it to be used more widely. Estimates show it is spoken by over 30% of the population and understood by another 20%. In 2007, the General Council of Pyrénées-Orientales proclaimed Catalan as one of the languages of the department, alongside French and Occitan with the intent of further promoting it in public life and education.
Catalans are a Romance ethnic group of people from, or with origins in Catalonia, which is the majority nationality in northeastern Spain. The inhabitants of Catalunya Nord are included in that definition. In addition to Catalunya, other Catalan speaking people are found in Andorra, Valencia, the Balearic islands, parts of eastern Aragon, in clusters away from the main body of Catalan speakers in Languedoc-Roussillon and in the city of Alghero in Sardinia.
The role of history in this story
Catalunya originally emerged from the conflicts in Muslim Spain as a regional power, as Christian rulers entrenched themselves in the region during the Carolingian period from the 8 to late 9 centuries. Under the Catalan Count of Barcelona, known as Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) as of 878 his lands stretched from Urgell and Cerdanya in the Pyrenees to Barcelona and Girona on the Mediterranean coast. That domain included Catalunya, Aragón, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Aragón, especially Catalunya, played a key role in pushing the Arab occupiers out of what effective became a single Spanish kingdom with the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragón and the conquest of the last Muslim kingdom of Granada in 1492. It bound Catalunya to the new Spanish kingdom politically although its regional culture continued to survive and prosper.
Occasional regional unrest led to conflicts such as the German Peasants’ War of 1524-25 influencing minor uprisings in Valencia and Majorca. The Catalan revolt, also known as the Reapers’ War, affected a large part of the principality between 1640 and 1659. In turn it became a big war between Spain and France as many Catalan nobles allied themselves with Louis XIII of France. The war continued until 1659 and ended with the Peace of the Pyrenees, which effectively partitioned Catalunya whereby the County of Roussillon and the northern half of the County of Cerdanya was ceded to France and the rest remained under Spanish rule. Catalunya sided with the Habsburg against the Bourbon pretender during the War of the Spanish Succession from 1705 until 1714. The failure to defend continued Habsburg rule in Spain concluded with the surrender of Barcelona in 1714.
During the Napoleonic Wars, much of Catalunya was occupied by French forces by 1808 and until Napoleon’s surrender to Allied Armies in 1815. Forceful integration policies integrated many Catalans into French society, while in Spain the Catalan identity was progressively more suppressed in favour of a Spanish national identity. They regained autonomy during the Spanish Second Republic from 1932 until Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces retook Catalunya progressively by 1939. Many of the Republican Spanish refugees from Franco’s Falangist dictatorship were Catalans. Some settled in Catalunya Nord, others throughout the south and southwest of France. The remaining children and grandchildren of the Republican exiles are mostly integrated but a few have been instrumental in stimulating some sympathy for Catalan independence. A friend whose maternal grandfather was a Catalan exile and paternal grandparents Italian refugees from Italian fascism has some sympathy for the Catalan cause but favours greater autonomy, the cause originally politically pressed until frustration led to the independence cause. In his way my friend is very French, yet he supports Basques’ and Bretons’ respective causes and, to my delight, knows the entire lyrics of ‘Flower of Scotland’ in support for Scots independence. Nonetheless, he feels the route taken by the Catalan government recently is wrong.
When Franco died in 1975 Catalans began to retrieve their right to cultural expression, which was restated by the Spanish Constitution of 1978. Since then the balance between a sense of local identity versus the broader Spanish one has emerged as the dominant political force in Catalunya. The former trend tends to advocate greater autonomy and independence, whereas the latter usually argues for maintaining either a status quo or removal of autonomy and cultural identity, depending on the policies of the current Spanish government. Thus, there is a tendency for there to be fluctuation depending on regional and national politics during individual governments. Because of stronger centralism in France, Catalans present a much less forceful sense of uniqueness, having been more consistently integrated into the unified French national identity. In general, flare ups of regionalism and separatism have had little effect although a small separatist movement does exist that would demand reunification with an independent Catalunya.
Carles Puigdemont, the separatists’ leader, has promised to declare an independent state while claiming he does not fear arrest. King Felipe tried to reunite Spain with a one-sided, forebodingly scare mongering speech that did more to inflame anger than quell it. Rajoy is not backing down; in fact he is threatening direct rule from Madrid and a mass purge if a Catalan unilateral declaration of independence goes ahead. Pro-union demonstrators have now been out of the streets of Barcelona and other cities to express their point of view, but without the violent police intervention. Compromises have been suggested and the possibility of negotiations offered by the Catalan side with a negative response from Rajoy.
The clear contender for a mediated negotiation is, of course, the EU, being the de facto guarantor of Spanish democracy since Spanish membership in 1986. Puigdemont has repeatedly appealed for Brussels to intervene, recently saying “It cannot look the other way any longer.” Rajoy may not like it but may have to accept an EU mediation role when they consider the alternatives. The essential matter is that both sides are induced to pull back in order to defuse the crisis before it is simply irreversible. However, the EU is nowhere to be seen at this particular moment that threatens the European project, Catalunya who have made continuation in the EU and NATO clear intentions, acknowledging they would need to apply and wait for membership in line, the only real response was a spokesman’s brief statement that offered Rajoy support and added, halfheartedly, there was nothing the EU can do although there will be a special session.
Meanwhile, although contradictory in reality, European nationalists whose intent is to undermine the authority of the EU, if not see it destroyed, are siding carefully with secessionist groups who they normally oppose, since they wish to keep their countries intact as they are at present, to give rhetorical support to Catalunya. Macron who is exploiting Merkel’s reduced authority in Germany is placing himself at the heart of the European project, seeking friends and supporters for his proposed reforms and warily dampening any likelihood of separatism growing in French Catalan areas by being part of an effort to see Spain remain intact. Public sympathy is toward demonstrators hurt by excessive police actions, but extremely mute toward the notion of Catalan independence. Nationalists are trying to convert that strategy into one of the creation of a superstate that will undermine the authority of their country that justifies attempting to leave the EU or undermine it entirely. That is a cynical way of covering for their disdain for separatism here in France whilst using precisely that to garner favour. Should Catalunya sooner or later become independent it would be both against their interests and play right into the hands of their form of populism. In terms of news, the Catalan situation is of minor interest generally, by implication it is a serious threat. For that reason France remains discretely in favour of Rajoy but otherwise very quiet.