When nearly 10 million ballot papers were seized by Spanish police near Barcelona in the run-up to the region’s referendum on independence, there would have been real fears among separatists the vote wouldn’t go ahead.
The move, part of Madrid’s efforts to stop the vote, prompted the establishment of a secret network to get more voting slips printed.
One of this network’s outposts was based in a French region on the other side of the Pyrenees, nicknamed North Catalonia.
The freshly-printed ballot papers were then sent to Southern Catalonia in near secrecy.
This act of solidarity highlighted the close ties that have long existed between the two communities.
Catalonia, divided since the 18th century
At the end of the Franco-Spanish War in 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed, which endorsed the partition of Catalonia.
In 1700, the King of France prohibited the use of Catalan in Roussillon, the Catalan name for the region.
Despite numerous attempts from central powers, the Catalan heritage lived on.
It was even strengthened during certain periods of history, such as after the Spanish War, when many Republicans crossed the French border to escape Francoism.
Many of those seeking refuge in France came from Catalonia, which was one of the strongholds of the workers’ movement in Spain.
The Eastern Pyrenees: ‘the French Catalonia’
In Perpignan, the capital of the Eastern Pyrenees, there is a body which officially represents the Catalan government.
The purpose of this organisation is to strengthen cooperation and exchange between “French Catalonia” and its Spanish-based counterpart.
This body received support on September 25 from the L’Association des Maires, des Adjoints et de l’Intercommunalité des Pyrénées-Orientales (the Association of Mayors, Deputies and Intercommunity in the Eastern Pyrenees), after several officials from the Catalan government were arrested.
Some Catalan organisations, such as the Catalan National Assembly, also have a presence in France.
Today, the Eastern Pyrenees are populated by just over 400,000 people of whom a quarter can understand and/or speak Catalan.
The county has even officially recognised Catalan one of the community’s languages, along with the French.
However, this charter in favour of Catalan is not recognised at a national level as, according to the second article of the French Constitution, “the language of the Republic is French”.
Bilingual French-Catalan educational institutions were set up in the region to promote learning and encourage the spread of the language, similar to the arrangements in place for other “regional” languages (Basque, Corsican, Breton, etc.).
Around 13,000 pupils, from nursery to secondary school, were for enrolled at these public schools in the school year running from 2012 to 2013.
Such was the success of the classes that overburdened teachers called for extra sessions to be arranged.
Could a referendum be called in France?
In France, the Catalan identity is more culturally-manifested and borrowed from folklore.
This being said, it is clear that the inhabitants of Northern Catalonia remain attached to their roots.
Upon the creation of the new “super-regions” in France, where the country’s former regions were merged to create 13 larger ones a movement materialised.
Those involved campaigned to use the name “Pays Catalan” (the Catalan Country) for the newly-formed “Occitanie” – a fusion of the two former regions “Languedoc-Roussillon” and “Midi-Pyrenees”.
Several thousand people took to the streets of Perpignan campaigning in favour of the name.
This discontent gave rise to the movement, “Yes to the Catalan Country”, which put forward candidates in the last parliamentary elections.
Support for independence remains marginal in France, but voices have been raised demanding more autonomy.
Two political parties hope to organise a referendum to create a new community to replace the Eastern Pyrenees. Its name: North Catalonia.