Catalonia vote: The French who see Barcelona as their capital

By Petroc Trelawny
BBC News, Laroque des Alberes, France

Image source, AFP

More than five million Spanish Catalans will be voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday, and many are expected to favour pro-independence parties. Thousands of Catalans also live on the French side of the border - they won't have a vote but they are still closely involved.

In Laroque des Alberes there is a road named after Marshall Joseph Joffre, the World War I soldier whose victories are recalled on streets from Paris to Nice.

Like towns and cities across the country, Laroque has a Rue du 14 Juillet and a Place de la Republique as well.

But there is one difference. Whereas French street signs are usually blue and white, in Laroque the text is bright red, set against a rich yellow background - the colours of Catalonia.

This bustling place with a rough-and-ready bar sitting just around the corner from a Michelin-starred restaurant and three bakers competing for business, is just a few miles from the Spanish border.

Or to be more precise, the border with Catalonia, where a well-established nationalist movement has a support base that is rapidly growing.

Historically the Principality of Catalonia straddled the modern border. But after the French beat Spain at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1658, a treaty ceded the northern parts of Catalonia to the French crown, and the area has remained under the control of Paris ever since.

But in Laroque and communities across the region, locals have never forgotten their heritage.

The Sardana, a rather languid, complicated Catalan folk dance, is performed in the Place de la Republique. And the Catalan language has never died, even though for a period it was illegal.

At Claude's bar, where local rose wine is dispensed in brightly painted jugs filled from large plastic barrels, a group of older residents sit outside in the autumn sunshine, their conversation flipping between languages.

Around 30% of the population here speak Catalan, with more than 50% able to understand it.

It is just a short drive to Perpignan - the second biggest Catalan city, after Barcelona.

The surrealist artist Salvador Dali, born across the border in Figueres, called Perpignan's railway station "the centre of the world". He would sit in its cool ticket hall seeking inspiration.

A few blocks from the station are the local offices of the CDC, the Catalan political party that leads the coalition in power, in Barcelona. But it is a force here as well, with 30 elected representatives, including nine mayors.

"The French government is too centralist," says Jordi Vera, leader of the French part of the CDC, and a Perpignan city councillor. "Paris is 500 miles (800km) away. Barcelona is our capital."

It is much closer. When a long-awaited new high-speed rail link finally starts running across the border next year, the journey between the two cities will take less than an hour.

In Barcelona the CDC wants Catalonia to determine its own future, away from Madrid, and with independent membership of the European Union.

Upwards of one and a half million marched earlier this year in support of independence. But even if Catalonia eventually becomes a sovereign state, Vera does not see Perpignan and the surrounding area becoming a part of it - ceding from France is not on the agenda.

"What we want is a new relationship so that business, trade, transport and tourism can be co-ordinated across the region," he says.

There is much to gain. This is one of the poorest parts of France - Catalonia is one of the richest parts of Spain.

Vera asks me how I think the Scottish will vote in their referendum in 2014, before continuing: "This is an historic time for the Catalan people. This region is a laboratory to test how a Europe of smaller states might work."

He too drifts between French and Catalan in his conversation. "Catalan could become an official language of the European Union," he says. "That would mean France would finally have to recognise it."

Paris might also have to rethink what it calls this area. Currently the departement (administrative region), stretching from mountainside to shining Mediterranean is officially titled the Pyrenees Orientales. Also officially acceptable is "Le Pays Catalan", the Catalan Country.

"A rather patronising French confection," one of the drinkers in Claude's tells me. "Northern Catalonia is the preferred title of those who seek closer ties with Barcelona."

From the outskirts of Laroque, you can look across the vineyards to Canigou, the 9,000-foot (2,700m) mountain peak that holds special significance for Catalans.

Snow has fallen over night, but is quickly melting away. I am told of the groups of Catalan schoolchildren, brought across an international border in order to climb one of their nation's geographical icons.

"But why doesn't everyone speak Catalan?" asks one child, shocked at the dominance of all things French.

But in recent years, more and more houses here have started displaying bright red and yellow flags, Catalan specialties take pride of place in local traiteurs (restaurants) - and the Sardana is being danced with a new enthusiasm.

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