, BARCELONA, Spain, Oct 9 – In Spain the sight of countless red and yellow national flags were usually only seen at football stadiums until Catalonia’s independence drive fanned the fires of patriotism this week.
Despairing at what they see as dangerous Catalan nationalism, Spaniards opposed to secession wrapped themselves in the flag and demonstrated this weekend, chanting, “I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish”.
Catalan separatist leaders have threatened to declare independence this week based on an outlawed October 1 referendum.
“They want to break Spain up, so we are uniting to defend it,” said Fernando Gomez, 74, protesting in Madrid’s Colon Square on Saturday.
Like many of her fellow demonstrators, Rocio Villanueva, 30, wore a flag in a sign of national pride.
“It has not increased, it is just that now it is showing itself. Perhaps what is happening is making us no longer feel ashamed” of showing it, she said.
National government officials said 50,000 people joined the Madrid demo. Some 350,000 marched in Barcelona on Sunday, city police said.
A company that manufacturers Spanish flags, Sosa Dias, said it could not keep up with demand.
“This month we have sold three times what we normally sell in a year,” the company’s owner Jose Luis Sosa told radio COPE.
He said it was the first time he had experienced such a surge in sales for political causes.
“The issue of Catalonia has caused a flourishing of ideas and thoughts that had been forgotten in Spain,” said Ivan Espinosa, spokesman for the Foundation for the Defence of the Spanish Nation, which organised the Madrid rally.
“There has been little patriotic sentiment on the left since the civil war,” which ended in 1939, he said.
Since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, “the right has had a terrible complex that people will associate patriotism with the years of oppression”.
The anti-independence demonstrators said their action was about unity, not nationalism.
The Barcelona march was called under the slogan of a “return to good sense”.
But the Catalan crisis has sparked fierce rhetoric on both sides and debate in the media about what it even means to be Spanish.
“We want a united Spain. I am very tired of being silent,” said Susana Cerezal, 41, in the Barcelona demo.
“Every time we bring out the Spanish flag they call us fascists.”
Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted there was nothing alarming about the surge of patriotism.
He said in an interview published in El Pais newspaper this weekend that the pro-unity demonstrations were “peaceful.”
“People have the right to say, ‘I am Spanish and proud of it and I am proud of my constitution. I think that is a good thing,” he said.
In comparison to the dictatorship, nationalist movements in the northern regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country were seen as relatively progressive.
But since that era, Spain has developed a new kind of national pride.
Political scientist Pablo Simon of Madrid’s Carlos III University calls it “national constitutionalism” — a devotion to the founding charter of the post-Franco democracy.
“It is an identity that has been generated based on the political accords of the transition, about the founding legend of that time,” Simon said on Cadena Ser radio.
It finds expression, he argues, “in softer ways, such as the Spanish national football team”.
Patriotism or nationalism
The defenders of Spain’s unity who marched this weekend rejected the label of “nationalists”.
For them, that is a word that applies to the Catalan separatist movement.
They prefer to call themselves just “patriots”.
“We distinguish ourselves from nationalists, who have a tendency to believe that some people are better than others just because of the ideas they have or the place where they were born,” Espinosa said.
Josep Pique, a Catalan former minister of Spain’s governing People’s Party, wrote a column in El Mundo newspaper defending “the tremendous importance of Spanish patriotism”.
He said that was a counterbalance to “a form of nationalism that likens Catalonia to a nordic country and the rest of Spain to North Africa”.
Us against them
Spanish historian Carlos Gil Andres told AFP he sees no difference between the pro- and anti-secession waves of fervour.
“All forms of nationalism feed another. They are built around an idea of ‘us’ against ‘them,'” he said.
“Spanish nationalists don’t think that is what they are. They think Catalan nationalism is bad but that feeling Spanish is what is normal,” he said.
“The nationalist notion of identity is a latent thing… It is not that it is resurging it is mobilising.”