Hundreds of people gathered on Sunday at the Valley of the Fallen to protest the Spanish government’s plans to remove the remains of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from the controversial monument north of Madrid.
Protesters traveled from across Spain to attend Sunday’s protest, chanting slogans such as: “Long live Spain;” “Don’t touch the Valley;” and “Franco, Franco, Franco!” outside the basilica that holds Franco’s tomb.
Cars began pulling up to the Valley of the Fallen from 9am onward to attend the demonstration. “We have come to say goodbye to Franco,” said Zaqueo Echeverría, a 27-year-old who traveled with his pregnant wife and three children from Segovia. Pilar Gutiérrez, the president of Movement for Spain, which organized the protest said: “Franco isn’t dead. Anyone who dies in Christ is not dead.”
The 13.6-square kilometer Valley of the Fallen site remains hotly contested in a country that is still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of the fascist dictatorship of Franco, who was the Spanish head of state from the end of the Civil War in 1939 to his death in 1975.
There is a lot of resentment, this is vengeance against a political ideology
Protester Francisco Javier Feria
The site was ostensibly built to commemorate all of the victims on both sides of Spain’s bitter and bloody Civil War, and the remains of more than 33,000 victims of the conflict lie there – including pro-Republican fighters whose bodies were taken from mass graves and buried at the monument without their families’ consent.
Critics point out that the Valley of the Fallen, which features a basilica and a 150-meter-high cross, which dominates the surrounding countryside, contains just two marked graves: those of Franco himself and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, Spain’s fascist-inspired political party.
Dressed in the blue uniform of the Falange, protester Francisco Javier Feria says the Spanish government’s move to exhume the dictator’s body is an act of vengeance. “There is a lot of resentment, this is vengeance against a political ideology,” he said. “This is not a Franco cult. The bodies here have to give an example so that [the Civil War] does not happen again,” he added.
While waiting to enter the basilica on Sunday, some of the protesters posed for photos, making fascist salutes and unfurling the eagle-emblazoned pre-constitutional Spanish flag. The Historical Memory Law – legislation that seeks to recognize victims on both sides of Spain’s Civil War (1936-39) – bans all “political acts or any act that celebrate the Civil War, its protagonists or the Franco dictatorship” at the Valley of the Fallen. But even though it was approved in 2007, various organizations continue to hold demonstrations there in honor of the dictator. In some cases, for instance in November 2010, riot police have had to be called in to intervene.
This Sunday, protesters sung Cara al Sol, the anthem of the Falange party, and chanted slogans such as “Spaniards yes, refugees no,” and “Catalonia is Spain, they’re not fooling us.” Civil Guard officers asked the most boisterous protestors to calm down.
“This is not the place, they should go to La Moncloa [the seat of government],” said Alberto López, a 29-year-old who describes himself as “the most Franquista of all.” The Valley of the Fallen “is a place of reconciliation” he argued, and should not be used to make political demands.
The Spanish government is looking at ways to criminalize the National Francisco Franco Foundation (FNFF), an association founded in 1977 that promotes messages such as “the old regime was not, under any circumstance, a dictatorship.”
During the Popular Party (PP) government of Prime Minister José María Aznar the FNFF received almost €150,000 in subsidies to make copies and micro-films of “300,000 documents that are key to the history of Spain.”
Although the foundation no longer receives public funding, it had a budget of €120,000 last year and counts on almost 500,000 members.
At 11am, a Mass was held inside the basilica, where the remains of Falange founder José Antonio Primo de Rivera are also located. Many of the attendees wore bracelets, hats and shirts with the Spanish flag. “There have always been people from both sides in my family,” said Luis Sánchez. It is not his first visit to the Valley and he isn’t comfortable with Franco symbols being displayed inside the monument.
Before leaving, hundreds of people lined up to enter the Valley of the Fallen gift shop, which sells everything from bookmarks for €1.90 to canvas bags with the image of the Valley’s cross.
Amid the pro-Franco protesters, a group of eight Australian tourists looked on with surprise. “We were not expecting to this, we are a little confused,” said 19-year-old Bradley Pool.
By noon, most of the protesters had left, save for a few who remained singing The Song of the Valley: “These are not war songs, these are hymns of love and peace.”
Since taking office through a no-confidence motion, Spain’s new Socialist Party (PSOE) Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has announced a series of measures to address the wounds of the Civil War and dictatorship era. As well as pushing to remove Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, the Socialist government has promised to spearhead the search for people who went missing under Franco, and whose bodies are still lying in mass graves and by roadsides. The Interior Ministry has also launched an investigation into the police medals and extra pension given to the notorious Franco-era cop known as “Billy the Kid.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.