Tens of thousands of pro-independence campaigners gather in Perpignan

Former president Puigdemont attends rally: 'I set foot in Catalonia after two years in exile'

Thousands of pro-independence supporters in Perpignan, on February 29, 2020 (by Elisabet Don)
Thousands of pro-independence supporters in Perpignan, on February 29, 2020 (by Elisabet Don) / ACN

ACN | Perpignan

March 1, 2020 12:12 PM

Tens of thousands of pro-independence supporters gathered in a political event in Perpignan, French Catalonia, on Saturday morning, with former president Carles Puigdemont attending.

The rally was due to begin at noon, but was slightly delayed because some attendees were stuck in a traffic jam. It took place in Parc de les Exposicions, with 150,000 people attending, according to the organization. Some people could not get access as the space was full.

Puigdemont: "Prepare for the final struggle"

During the event, Puigdemont called on citizens to "prepare for the final struggle" to achieve independence. He also urged the public to return to the spirit of the 2017 independence referendum and said the cause has to "overcome mistakes, hesitations and weaknesses."

He added that there is a need to make a network of branches of his organization, Consell per la República, that "effectively controls the territory."

Another exiled MEP, Toni Comínasked "what Spain's government has to say" about the Belgian, German, Scottish judges' stances on the Catalan leaders' extradition requests. He also mentioned the EU court's decision accepting several jailed and exiled leaders as MEPs, such as the jailed leader Oriol Junqueras. 

Indeed during the rally, an audio message of Junqueras was played. Esquerra party's president asked citizens to "not give up" in the independence cause. "We have to be more and more diverse," he added, saying it was only due to Catalonia's push that Spain has engaged in dialogue.

Also during the event, MEP Clara Ponsatí took the floor and accused Spain of "tricking" the independence camp with dialogue. "They never fulfill promises," she added.

The first speaker to take the floor was the writer Joan Lluís-Lluís, who welcomed the "solidarity" between citizens in both sides of the border. He called a "calamity" the situation of Catalan language in France and blames the French state during the last 360 years

Council for the Republic

The rally was organized by the exiled politician's private organization, Consell per la República (Council for the Republic), and it was especially symbolic because it was the first time that Puigdemont and other exiled leaders Toni Comín and Clara Ponsatí set foot in Rousillon, an area belonging to Catalonia until 1659, when Spain ceded it to France. Thus the region whose capital is Perpignan is widely called Northern Catalonia or French Catalonia. Some people still speak Catalan there and keep some traditions and symbols from before 1659. 

Puigdemont arrived on Friday and tweeted: "We have entered Catalonia. We are very happy and emotional of setting foot in Catalonia as free people, after two years and three months living in exile. Thanks to everyone who made it possible."

In the eve of the rally the former president attended a match of USAP Perpinyà, the rugby local team, and on Saturday morning, he was greeted by the mayor of Perpignan, Jean-Marc Pujol, in the city hall.

Puigdemont, the exiled president

The former head of government went into exile in late October 2017, few days after the Catalan declaration of independence. He has not returned to Catalonia ever since and he faces an arrest warrant in Spain. Although he lives in Belgium, he has travelled to several EU countries during this time.

Yet, he did not set foot in France for the first time until he was confirmed his immunity as MEP last month – before then he had feared France would extradite him.

He was elected MEP in the May 2019 EU election, but it was not until a EU court ruling in December 2019 that he was accepted and was able to take office.

After two failed Spanish extradition attempts, he faces a third one but the procedures are suspended until the EU parliament decides on whether to waive his immunity.

The former health minister Toni Comín and the former education minister Clara Ponsatí have similar stories, with her having exiled in Scotland.