What is in a name? A lot, apparently — at least if you ask French Catalans who live in the nation’s southwest corner around Perpignan.
When the French parliament approved a plan to consolidate the nation’s regions, to increase their clout and cut red tape, it did more than reduce the number to 13 from 22. It inflamed a crisis of Catalan identity that has spread like wildfire from across the border with Spain, where it is burning hot already.
Under the change, the Languedoc-Roussillon region, combined with neighboring Midi-Pyrenees, will take a new name — Occitanie (Occitania in English), chosen after regional authorities asked people to vote online from a list of possibilities.
Simple enough. If only.
The 450,000 or so French Catalans — or Catalans of the North, as most of them call themselves — regard the new name as erasing their presence from the map. In Perpignan, which was once an important military fortress, opponents of the name Occitania are determined to resist.
As the Oct. 1 deadline for the formal switch approaches, protests have intensified. A major street demonstration is planned in Perpignan today, as well as an appeal opposing the new name on the grounds of discrimination before France’s main administrative court, the Council of State.
The Catalans also want to at least add two words to the name Occitania: “Pays Catalan,” or Catalan Land.
“A name gives identity, so this reform has made us a lot more aware of who we really are, especially since we’re being told that our culture will be buried under a name that has never been ours,” said Sylvia Andolfo, who was flying a Catalan flag outside her pastry shop.
Occitania is a cultural rather than political term that dates to the Middle Ages and refers to a vast area in southern Europe where people speak Occitan, a Romance language derived from Latin.
However, Occitania “means nothing to us,” said Brice Lafontaine, the president of a party called Unitat Catalana.
“We are the Catalans of the North and we want to continue to exist as such,” Lafontaine said.
Some are also upset that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has stayed on the sidelines of the debate. Valls was born in Barcelona and speaks Catalan.
In fact, Lafontaine called Valls “a traitor” to the Catalan cause.
“Can you imagine a Frenchman going to Quebec and fighting against the recognition of French culture there?” Lafontaine asked. “That is just what Manuel Valls has done here.”
The protests over the name change have received some institutional support. Some local mayors agreed to add signs that read “the Catalan” below town names along roads.
During a concert, the singer Hugues di Francesco went backstage and emerged with a Catalan flag.
“We have our identity and culture, so don’t erase us from the map,” Di Francesco told the crowd before performing a protest song that has become a summer hit.
The crowd joined in to sing the chorus: “We’re not Occitans, we’re Catalans, we’re not going to change our accent, nor the color of our blood.”
Catalans in the southwest of France became subjects of King Louis XIV under a 1659 peace treaty that enlarged the nation and created a new border with Spain along the Pyrenees.
The latest redrawing of France’s administrative map, and the dispute it has caused, coincide with an unrelated territorial conflict on the southern side of the Pyrenees over whether the Catalan regional government, based in Barcelona, can split from Spain.
However, most people in France define their Catalan identity as cultural rather than political. For instance, Andolfo, while feeling sympathy for the Catalans who want to separate from Spain, expressed no desire to see French Catalans break away from France.
Andolfo understands the Catalan language, but does not speak it, even though some in her family fled Catalonia for France in 1939. They were among the nearly 500,000 Spaniards escaping General Francisco Franco, who rose to power after Spain’s civil war.
“My grandmother never spoke to me in Catalan because she always kept her fear of Franco and believed that French was my future, the way for me to find a job,” Andolfo said.
Still, Andolfo put her own daughter in a bilingual school to learn French and Catalan.
French Catalans share folkloric dances and other traditions with the Catalans across the border, but French is the only language heard around town, except in the district of Saint Jacques, whose Romany community speaks Catalan.
There is also some discontent over the name changes in other regions. In eastern France, the historical regional names Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne are being administratively replaced by Grand-Est, or Great East, as part of a three-way merger to create a much larger region bordering Germany.
“There are many people around the country who are unhappy about the new names, but our case is more serious, because the name has triggered not only a feeling of exclusion, but also a situation of discrimination,” said Helene Legrais, a Perpignan writer whose historical novels are mostly about French Catalans.
However, some Catalan entrepreneurs believe it was unrealistic to expect Catalans, who now represent less than one-tenth of the population of the enlarged region, to persuade other inhabitants to give full recognition to Catalan culture.
Rather than mentioning either Occitan or Catalan, they say, the enlarged region could have opted for Pyrenees-Mediterranee, a name that is culturally neutral, but highlights the region’s mountains and sea.
“Occitania really doesn’t suit me, but also because I believe such a name is hard to sell as a brand internationally,” said Bernard Guasch, the owner of a meat company and a rugby league club called the Catalans Dragons. “In an environment of globalization, we should have taken full advantage of our two amazing natural assets, for which everybody envies us and nobody disputes.”
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