Sat, Sep 10, 2016 - Page 5 News List

Catalans fear losing more than their region’s name

NY Times News Service, PERPIGNAN, France

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.

‘IDENTITY’

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.

‘TRAITOR’

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.

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