BARCELONA: Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain over a failed 2017 independence bid, is expecting to draw vast crowds of supporters to a rally on Saturday in southern France near the Catalan border.
It will be the first time the former Catalan president has ventured so close to the Spanish frontier since he fled to Brussels to escape prosecution following the failed secession bid that sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
In October, nine other separatist leaders who remained in Spain were sentenced to heavy jail terms for sedition, sparking weeks of angry protests in Catalonia, some of which turned violent.
Until now, Puigdemont has not risked travelling to France, where police and the courts work closely with Madrid. But that changed recently when he was granted immunity as a member of the European parliament.
Catalan separatists are expected to turn out en masse for his rally in Perpignan, a town in southern France close to the Spanish border that separatists consider the capital of northern Catalonia.
Organisers have booked 600 buses, estimating that between 70,000 and 100,000 separatist supporters will travel to the rally which starts at 1100 GMT in the grounds of Perpignan’s exhibition centre.
“For me, it’s like being home,” Puigdemont told a local newspaper ahead of the visit, during which he will be received by the town’s mayor and other French officials.
The rally comes at a sensitive time for Catalonia where Puigdemont’s successor, Quim Torra, has announced early regional elections due to a clash between the two separatist parties that run the wealthy northeastern part of Spain.
One is Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxC) while the other is the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which is headed by his former deputy Oriol Junqueras, who is currently serving 13 years in prison over the failed independence bid.
The tensions stem from strategic differences over how to advance the separatist agenda, with both parties struggling for leadership of the independence movement.
And while ERC has pushed for dialogue with the government of Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, JxC has favoured a more confrontational approach.
This week, Sanchez opened talks with Catalonia’s regional leaders to try to resolve the separatist conflict.
The negotiations were agreed as part of a deal with ERC in exchange for its support in getting Sanchez through a key investiture vote in January — a deal that was frowned upon by Puigdemont and his supporters.
“Experience has taught very clearly not to trust,” he said recently, despite asking to be a part of the ongoing dialogue with Madrid.