Tyranny, colonialism, freedom: a sense of proportionality dims, and history elides. In the last few days, French Catalans have offered safe houses to Carles Puigdemont, the now-deposed Catalan president, as if they were the Resistance. A poster published by the Sindicat d’Estudiants called for a student strike on October 25 and 26. It declared that the protest was “against Francoist repression,” and featured the stern figures of the Spanish king, the prime minister, and Franco. That one of them had been dead for 40 years was not immediately obvious.
In this telling, the fact that Catalonia has more autonomy than any other region in the European Union, including Scotland, does not figure. Fueled by the myth, pro-independence forces have clung stubbornly to the belief that the international community will rush to their aid, despite little to no evidence of their willingness to do so. (In the aftermath of Friday’s declaration, both the EU and the United States emphasized their unequivocal support for the Spanish government.) The myth helps explain why, on the day before the declaration, the pro-independence forces briefly turned on Puigdemont. He had entered negotiations with Madrid on a deal wherein he would abandon the independence proclamation and call for new regional elections; in exchange, the state would not apply Article 155. This made him persona non grata for many of his erstwhile supporters, who accused him of weakness and betrayal. Gabriel Rufián, a representative in the Spanish parliament for the Catalan Republican Left party, compared Puigdemont to Judas, tweeting“155 pieces of silver” in response to the news. Although Puigdemont later told the Catalan parliament that he favored the electoral route, the pressure from diehard independentists proved too great, and he abandoned negotiations.
Yet if the independence movement has been in the thrall of its own myth, the same can also be said of Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. In fact, the Catalan bid for independence has awakened the oldest myth in Spanish history: the myth of homogeneity, of one Spain, despite its numerous cultures, languages, and traditions. In its most severe iterations, that myth propelled the Reconquest, the Inquisition, and the Franco dictatorship. In its current form, it is far milder, tolerating regional differences so long as they remain submerged beneath a topsoil of Spanishness. But you can sense its presence in the Spanish flags newly draped across balconies in Madrid and Sevilla that, until recently, were adorned, at most, by fronds left out to dry from Palm Sunday celebrations.
There was a certain inconsistency to Rajoy’s decision to prevent the October 1 referendum: If it didn’t count, why take such pains to stop it? Especially when, 30 minutes before the polls opened, the Catalan government announced it was adopting procedures that would essentially allow anyone to cast their vote anywhere, regardless of their assigned polling station. At that point, whatever legitimacy the vote possessed dissipated. So when Rajoy nonetheless chose to invite international opprobrium by allowing Spanish authorities to confiscate ballot boxes and beat Catalan citizens trying to vote, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was the myth talking more than the law. The same is true of the charges brought against “the Jordis,” who will stand trial not for disturbing the peace or resisting the police, but for the far graver crime of sedition. On Thursday, when Rajoy could have negotiated an agreement with Puigdemont that would have diminished the conflict, allowed each side to save face, and most likely triggered the implosion of the independence movement, he again chose instead the myth over politics.