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Last Updated: Friday, 14 November, 2003, 14:54 GMT
Candidates play Catalan card

By Katya Adler
BBC correspondent in Barcelona

The Spanish region of Catalonia, which has a large degree of autonomy from the government in Madrid is known for being fiercely proud of its individual culture and local language.

Soaring immigration levels though mean that, these days, Catalan is less likely to be heard on the streets.

CAT sign in shop
Some staff have been told to speak only in Catalan to customers
With regional elections scheduled this Sunday, the Catalan government has been keen to show its nationalist credentials.

It has launched an integration campaign, aimed at immigrants but promoting the every day use of Catalan - rather than Spanish - amongst the region's inhabitants old and new.

Jordi Ruger, of the regional government's linguistics department has spear-headed the campaign.

He brushes aside any suggestion that it may harbour racist undertones.

"We don't like to speak of a threat or an immigration problem," he said.

"To what end would that be? In Catalonia we realise that immigration is a fact of life but what we want to ensure is that the Catalan language also remains a fact of everyday life here - in the schools, the universities, businesses, the courts and in bars and bakeries too."

In affluent Catalonia, he tells me, the language debate is not a sign of hostile anti-immigrant sentiment but rather part of a determined effort to remain culturally distinct from the rest of Spain.

CAT campaign

"We faced a similar challenge in the 1960's and 70's when we were again flooded with immigrants - this time though from other parts of Spain," he said. "Then, as now, we encouraged people to learn our language. I'm confident that we'll be successful again."

Jordi Pujol, the grand old man of conservative Catalan politics and Catalonia's president, describes the drive to integrate all immigrants as a survival tactic.

Sitting aside an enormous Catalan flag in his Barcelona office he said his region had fought for its cultural independence from Spain for 3 centuries and that immigration should not overshadow the Catalan identity.

"We must treat people humanely," he told me. "Most come from north Africa or South America and are very poor - but the key for Catalonia is successful integration."

Even as a foreigner you definitely get the feeling that here, you're living in Catalonia, not Spain
Giovanni van Bronckhorst
FC Barcelona footballer
The CAT-campaign as it's been nick-named has been launched across the region.

CAT posters in and outside bars, restaurants and shops indicate the staff there have been instructed to speak Catalan with all customers, wherever they come from.

At the check-out counter of a participating supermarket I asked some students from Barcelona University what they thought of the regional government's campaign?

Their reaction was mixed. Tanit thought the campaign was a definite vote-winner and that people needed the push to learn Catalan.

Edgar worried that some immigrants might object to the campaign but thought it was practical.

"Catalans are very polite people," he said. "If they have any idea that you may not speak Catalan well, they immediately speak to you in Spanish, but with more and more foreigners here that means less and less Catalan is being spoken."

Language lessons

Maria objected to the idea that immigrants were being forced to learn Catalan.

"Catalonia is also part of Spain," she said. "People should be given the choice to speak Spanish."

Immigrants to Catalonia are given a choice, of sorts. They can attend government Catalan classes for free, or pay for Spanish lessons out of their own pocket.

Catalan class
Immigrants are offered free Catalan classes
So far it's a deal that many immigrants and their support groups appear to be accepting.

Veronika Tan from Singapore attends weekly Catalan classes. She said there was never any doubt in her mind that she had to learn Catalan - without it she was unable to communicate with her boyfriend's friends or family, go food shopping or find a job.

It can certainly be an isolating experience living in Catalonia and not speaking Catalan.

More than 80% of Catalans use their language in their everyday lives.

I took advantage of my visit to Barcelona to watch an FC Barcelona home game at Camp Nou.


Although he's only on a one-year transfer from Arsenal, the Dutch player Giovanni van Bronckhorst assured me he'd soon be taking Catalan lessons.

"How else can you really understand what makes people tick here?" he said. "Even as a foreigner you definitely get the feeling that here, you're living in Catalonia, not Spain."

My mother is Catalan and my father from the north of Spain. There is no conflict
Manuel Fuentes
Radio CAT DJ

So is the CAT-campaign really necessary?

Certainly the Catalan government has been criticised by those who feel it pushes and politicises the language issue too much.

Manuel Fuentes is a DJ on Barcelona's Radio CAT. There he broadcasts in Catalan but he also travels once a week to Madrid where he presents a TV show in Spanish.

Manuel says he doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

"Language is simply a means of communication for me. I grew up here in Catalonia with both languages - my mother is Catalan and my father from the north of Spain. There is no conflict."

Yet looking around at the elections posters smothering the streets of Barcelona there appears to be some sort of conflict but this is not the typical anti-immigrant rant we've unfortunately become so used to seeing in populist pre-election rallies across Europe.

Here the immigration debate has a distinctly Catalan twist. Far from seeing them as a threat, some say the new arrivals in Catalonia can help strengthen their regional struggle against being swallowed up by a broader Spanish identity.

Catalan bid for 'sovereignty'
24 Mar 03  |  Europe
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Catalan nationalism hits the web
12 Sep 02  |  Technology

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