Location: Catalonia, region of north-east Spain
Population: 5.7 million, 80% Catalan speakers
% of population: 14.5% of Spanish population
Religion: Catholic
Language: Catalan, Spanish, some French speakers

The Catalans are the native inhabitants of the former principality of Catalonia which was once a commercially flourishing and independent political entity and is now divided into the provinces of Barcelona, Tarragona, Lerida and Gerona. The Catalans, a mixture of Pyrenean and Mediterranean peoples, speak the Catalan dialect which has a greater affinity with Provençal than Spanish, and French influence in Catalonia has been consistently strong. There are also Catalan speakers outside Catalonia — in the Balearic Islands and the area around Valencia in Spain; in France, Andorra and Sardinia.

The Franco era

Catalans have long been fiercely regionalistic and they repeatedly took part in Carlist and Republican revolts, the last of which, in 1932, resulted in Catalonia being made an autonomous region within the Spanish state. The widely-spoken local language and common culture were important factors in the shaping of a sense of national identity, and a literary revival in the nineteenth century inspired Catalan intellectuals and middle-class groups to lead a Catalan nationalist movement. Catalonia was, and remains, a prosperous region within Spain. Industry has thrived and Catalans enjoyed a disproportionate share of the country’s industrial wealth, due largely to the activities of a local entrepreneurial class. The increasing centralization of government was particularly resented by this politically aware group, especially as state bureaucracy was far less efficient than local government bodies. The regional aspirations of the Catalans and Basques were seen as a threat to Spanish unity by “nationalistic” political forces, led by General Franco, and Catalans supported the defeated Republican forces in the Civil War of the 1930s.

Under the Franco regime Catalans suffered severe political and cultural repression. The Cata-lonian autonomous government was abolished and its leader extradited from Vichy France and shot. Regional-based parties were banned. Catalonia’s share of government funding dropped steadily and Catalan businessmen were actively discouraged from investing surplus capital within Catalonia. The use of Catalan outside the home was banned as were street and shop signs in Catalan. Any expression of Catalan culture was forbidden and teachers were expected to demonstrate “political reliability” or face dismissal or compulsory transfer to other regions. During the 1950s there was some relaxation of policy and the everyday unofficial use of Catalan was once again permitted as were some folk festivals. Large numbers of immigrants from other, poorer, Spanish regions moved into Catalonia, however, particularly in the 1960s, until well over 50% of its unskilled or semiskilled workforce was not Catalan.

During the 1950s Catalans were among the leaders of nationwide resistance to Franco’s rule. In this they were supported by a large group of Catalan and Basque clergy who were mostly moderate Socialists or Christian Democrats and who tended to support the regional cause. Unlike the Basques, however, the Catalans only rarely resorted to violent methods of protest. Due to their well-established cultural and economic identity they were a self-confident community able to resolve local conflict through co-operation rather than confrontation.

The post-Franco era

With the death in 1975 of General Franco the Catalan people entered a new phase. Continuing demands for regional autonomy were supported by massive strike action to which the government was slow to respond, partly due to its fear of regionalism, a fear exacerbated by the disruptive actions of ETA, the Basque terrorist group. In 1977, at the first elections to be held in the post-Franco era, an alliance of explicitly pro-Catalan parties secured 10 seats in the lower house of the new Parliament and Catalan leaders were able to present a relatively united front to the central government in the unofficial Assemblea de Catalunya (formed in the last years of the Franco regime). Catalonia (along with the Basque country, Andalucia and Galicia) was one of four regions granted a higher degree of autonomy than others. There have been Catalan complaints of official tardiness in implementation of regional reforms.

The attempted military coup of 1982 was a sharp reminder of unresolved problems as government attempted its remodelling process but in 1982 power was democratically passed to an elected Socialist government and the backlog of social and administrative reform is gradually being dealt with. It appears that the repressive measures used against Catalans during the Franco regime have been finally abandoned. The Catalan language and culture is now visible and encouraged by the regional government and non-Catalan immigrants have also learnt Catalan, thus confirming its position as a viable language. Spain’s entry into the EC in 1986 also gave Catalonia — which has traditionally looked northwards rather than to Madrid — hopes for continued regional autonomy and economic integration within Europe.

Catalans in France

Catalan-speaking lands, known as Catalonia-Nord (corresponding to the department of Pyrénées-Orientales), were annexed to the French crown in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. Today probably 200,000 out of a total of 300,000 inhabitants speak Catalan in the 4,000 square kilometres of Catalonia-Nord. As with other minority languages in France there is no official legal recognition of Catalan although it is possible for some education to be given in Catalan and various groups work for the promotion and maintenance of the Catalan language. However the main impetus for its continued use is the active Catalan language and culture in Spain. Catalonia-Nord has severe economic problems of historic underdevelopment, diminishing land use and high unemployment.

(See also Basques; Galicians)