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Prince calls for Spanish unity on his debut at head of National Day parade

Thousands turn up in Barcelona to reject Catalan region’s independence drive

Prince Felipe stands as soldiers pass by during the October 12 parade in Madrid. Ampliar foto
Prince Felipe stands as soldiers pass by during the October 12 parade in Madrid.

Standing in for his ailing father at the National Day parade in Madrid for this first time on Saturday, Crown Prince Felipe called for Spanish unity as thousands in Barcelona held a massive demonstration to show their opposition to Catalan independence.

In his address following the Día de la Hispanidad military parade, the prince said that October 12 was above all “a day to reaffirm our commitment to a shared future of harmony and progress for all Spaniards.”

“If there is a lot that unites us today, there will be much more to further strengthen our ties throughout Spain and with the international community. Spain, with the throne at your service, will always continue to work to ensure that there is progress in the future, while overcoming any difficulty.”

It was the first time that King Juan Carlos had missed out on the annual military parade. The 75-year-old monarch continues to recover from a hip operation performed last month — his fifth surgical procedure in two years.

When asked about the prince’s address, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called it “marvelous” while opposition Socialist leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said it was a “fortunate departure” from the regular speeches.

The prince went on to pass on his father’s well-wishes and said the king was watching the ceremony from Zarzuela royal palace. “This has been a strange but special day,” Felipe said as he reflected about stepping in for his father. “One has to be in the place that corresponds to him.”

Police asked members of several ultra-right groups, carrying pre-democracy flags, to leave

Felipe and Princess Letizia presided over the parade. This year, because her husband could not attend, Queen Sofía was also absent from the official grandstand as were Felipe’s sisters, the infantas Elena and Cristina.

But the queen and Elena joined the royal couple as they received the nation’s top leaders as well as members of the diplomatic corps at a reception afterwards. “It is the first time in 44 years that I did not attend,” the queen told reporters afterwards.

For her part, Cristina has become a low-key royal figure, along with her husband Iñaki Urdangarin, as the criminal investigation into the diversion of public funds by the king’s son-in-law, continues before a Palma de Mallorca judge.

Meanwhile, in Catalonia, where calls for independence have grown as regional premier Artur Mas vows to hold a status referendum next year, thousands joined a National Day parade waving Spanish and Catalan flags. It was an answer to the massive turnouts on September 11 — Catalonia’s own national day — when hundreds of thousands of Catalans held hands in a 400-kilometer human chain across their region to press the Spanish government into letting them vote on breaking away and forming their own country.

Figures varied as to how many people turned out for the rally in Barcelona’s Catalunya square. Organizers from the Som Catalunya, Somos España platform estimated around 160,000 people took part while the government’s delegate in the region placed the figure at around 105,000. The municipal police estimated around 30,000 people. Unfurling large Catalan and Spanish flags, demonstrators listened to speeches on Catalan unity delivered by Olympic athletes Ander Mirambell and Jesús Ángel García Bragado.

While the entire rally was peaceful, there was one tense moment when law enforcement authorities asked members of several ultra-right groups, including the Falange and Alianza Nacional, carrying pre-democracy Spanish flags with the black fascist eagle to leave the rally. The members chanted “Don’t deceive us, Catalonia is part of Spain” as they marched off.