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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 15:49 GMT
Franco bill divides Spaniards
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Madrid

Fascist salute by Franco supporters in Madrid on 18 November 2007
Franco followers say the general had saved Spain from Communism
A biting winter cold fills the Valley of the Fallen, a sprawling mausoleum to Spain's Civil War dead, carved out of granite rock.

Overhead, a towering 150-metre (492ft) cross casts a menacing shadow. But the chill is offset by an intense political heat.

"Viva Franco!" chants a large, mixed crowd. "One Spain, one flag! Immigrants out! Spain is Catholic, not Muslim!"

The throng includes elderly women in fur coats, on the arms of diminutive steely husbands with slicked-back hair.

Lines of rosy-cheeked youngsters sport the blue shirts of the Falange, Spain's Fascist Party, while big men - their bellies tucked into bomber jackets - lead the chorus of expletive-ridden chants.

"I lived nearly 40 years of my life under Franco, and I had more freedom then than I have now under democracy," explains 68 year-old Leopoldo de la Torre. "If the Reds had won, Spain would have fallen behind the Iron Curtain."

'Dictatorship'

Franco is buried here, and every year diehard followers pay their respects around the anniversary of his death.

Franco's grave at Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos near Madrid
Gen Franco died on 20 November 1975 aged 82

But this could be the last such gathering - under the government's proposed Law of Historic Memory, political acts at the Valley of the Fallen would be banned.

"From a political and psychological point of view, this law will put an end to the Franco question in Spain," boasts Diego Lopez Garrido, the congressional spokesman for Spain's ruling Socialist Party.

The draft legislation has been approved by the lower house, and now lies with the Senate.

A preamble to the main text condemns the four-decade rule of a man who, having won the Civil War, would ruthlessly dispose of tens of thousands of opponents.

It denounces "the use of violence to impose political views", and repeatedly describes the Franco regime as a "dictatorship".

The law's key provisions declare "illegitimate" the summary trials of Franco's opponents, and order the removal of statues and plaques in his honour.

Mass grave

The government also commits financial and logistical support to families seeking to identify the remains of fallen loved ones.

Santiago Liarte
Santiago Liarte hopes to identify his relatives and rebury them

That is already happening in the hillside town of Illueca in north-western Spain, where the crisp November air echoes to the thud of pickaxes on dry red earth.

A team of volunteer archaeologists is attempting to locate a mass grave - the starkly impersonal resting place of 18 local people shot dead in 1936 by Franco's Nationalist forces.

"These were ordinary citizens, people who'd done absolutely nothing wrong," says 63 year-old Maria Pilar Aznar Arudi, whose grandfather was among the victims.

"One night the Nationalists came to his house and just took him away. He never came home," she says.

Beside Maria, the stooped figure of Santiago Liarte follows the dig's progress intensely.

Santiago was only three at the outbreak of the Civil War, and lost his brother and an uncle to this mass grave. Through DNA analysis he hopes to identify their remains, then provide a dignified reburial.

"Franco was a terrorist," Santiago seethes, physically trembling with rage. "They said our relatives disappeared, but we know they're right here in this hole. And we want it on record in the history books."

'Pact of forgetting'

Few Spaniards would dispute the offer of state help to families seeking closure through exhumations. But in every other respect, the proposed law is deeply divisive.

Volunteers try to locate a mass grave in Illueca, north-western Spain
Some 250,000 people died during the 1936-39 Civil War

Left-wing critics say it pulls its punches. Meanwhile on the right, the opposition Popular Party has accused the government of breaching the spirit of reconciliation which followed Franco's death in 1975.

In what is often dubbed the "pact of forgetting", Franco's friends and foes agreed a mutually-beneficial Amnesty Law, in effect putting the past to one side during the transition to democracy.

And what of Spain's history professionals?

"I don't think there are many historians who are wildly enthusiastic about the law," says Charles Powell, a professor at Madrid's San Pablo Ceu University.

His concern is that, by condemning the sins of Franco, the government is unduly exaggerating the merits of the left-wing republic he overthrew.

"I'm not trying to condone the uprising, but the Second Republic was far from being an idyllic democracy. It was riven by rivalries - between socialists, communists and anarchists, not to mention Basque and Catalan nationalists," Prof Powell says.

'Anti-historic'

Back at the Valley of the Fallen, the general's immaculately-dressed daughter emerges smiling from an anniversary mass.

Franco's mausoleum, The Valley of the Fallen
The Valley of the Fallen was conceived personally by Franco

As the crowd erupts into a chorus of Cara al Sol, the fascist anthem, 81 year-old Carmen Polo is heralded like a queen bee.

"The Historic Memory Law is anti-historic," declares Felix Morales, the proud vice-president of the Franco Foundation.

"They want to scrape away all evidence of his rule, while leaving up statues from the other side - which also bore a lot of responsibility," he adds.

In all likelihood the Historic Memory Law will soon become reality.

But as the general rests in his imposing mausoleum, his ageing foot soldiers are fighting a fierce rearguard action for his legacy.

SEE ALSO
Civil War legacy divides Spain
18 Jul 06 |  Europe
Timeline: Spain
04 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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