PERPIGNAN (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Catalan independence supporters gathered in Perpignan, southern France, on Saturday at a rally in support of exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who called on the crowd to prepare for the “definitive struggle” for independence.
At around 30km from the Spanish border, it is the closest Puigdemont has been to Spain since he fled the country in October 2017 after calling a referendum on independence.
The referendum, which was declared illegal by Spanish courts, led to a short-lived declaration of independence by leaders in the restive northeastern region, plunging Spain into its biggest political crisis in decades.
Puigdemont, who is now a member of the European Parliament and lives in exile in Belgium, urged supporters waving Catalan flags not to give up on the fight for an independent Catalonia.
“We know that we won’t stop and they won’t stop us. We don’t have to wait for better times because they are here,” he said, to cheers from the crowd, which numbered around 70,000 according to local police, though organizers put the number closer to 150,000.
“Today we have stepped on Catalan soil as free people,” he said.
Perpignan, where Catalan is spoken, is a symbolic location for many Catalans, who call the region Northern Catalonia.
Supporters poured into the city, many crossing the border from Spain.
“Movements like this, with this magnitude, are always a positive thing,” said entrepreneur Joan Candoll, 50. “I see this as an act of unity, not a political campaign”.
Puigdemont made no mention of talks on the Catalan political crisis, which began this week between Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Catalan regional President Quim Torra, who was due to attend the Perpignan rally.
Puigdemont has been unable to return to Spain, where he is wanted on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds for his role in the failed independence bid. All extradition attempts by Spain have so-far failed, and he cannot be detained in France because of his MEP immunity.
(Reporting by Jordi Rubio and Luis Felipe Castilleja, Writing by Jessica Jones; Editing by Mike Harrison)