Catalans demanding independence from Spain linked arms across their region yesterday in a "human chain" which they hope will advance their ambition of holding a referendum next year on home rule, despite opposition from the central government.
Echoing the human chain organised by Baltic states seeking to break from the Soviet Union in 1989, this one stretched 400km (250 miles) across the Catalan region, from Spain’s northern border with France down along the Mediterranean coast. Despite outbreaks of rain, the event brought several hundred thousand Catalans out on to the streets.
September 11th is known as the Diada, Catalonia’s national day, which marks the anniversary of the defeat of the region’s troops by Bourbon forces in 1714. Yesterday’s human chain, under the slogan “The Catalan way towards independence”, took place at the historically significant time of 17:14 (5.14pm).
There was a festive atmosphere as participants waved the Catalan flag, chanted "independence", and sang the regional anthem Els Segadors while they linked arms.
The human chain was organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a grassroots group. Pro-independence political parties also supported it.
Earlier this week, Catalonia's nationalist premier, Artur Mas, compared the upcoming Diada to the 1963 Washington march led by Martin Luther King, and he said the Catalan demonstration could bring more people on to the streets than the civil rights event.
On Tuesday, Mr Mas published an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he made the case for independence, saying he had "exhausted every means possible" to negotiate with the central government of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.
Catalan nationalists claim the Spanish state meddles in their region and underfunds it.
Mr Rajoy’s conservative administration opposes Catalan independence outright and says a referendum on the issue would be unconstitutional.
For the past year, relations between Madrid and Catalonia have been under severe strain as Mr Mas has insisted on pushing ahead with plans to hold a vote in 2014.
But there are signs that the Catalan premier, who leads the CiU coalition, is taking a less confrontational approach. Last week he suggested the referendum could be delayed until 2016 if the central government blocks it next year.
“The message has been sent,” Mr Mas said yesterday, as the day’s festivities were getting under way. “We will keep believing in dialogue within the margins of the law. If, despite this, we are not heard, then the Spanish state has a serious problem in its relationship with Catalonia. I am trying to ensure that there is dialogue and I will keep trying until the end.”
But others, such as the Catalan Republican Left, an influential political party, and the ANC, are pressuring for the vote to be held next year.
A recent study by Metroscopia polling firm said 49 per cent of Catalans support independence, with 36 per cent wanting to remain part of Spain.