The small southern French town of Perpignan is located in what Catalan independence supporters consider to be Northern Catalonia. With a population of 120,000, Perpignan suddenly witnessed just as many Catalonians flooding its streets. The town, located just 30 kilometers from the French border with Spain, became the venue for an event featuring a speech by Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan pro-independence leader who fled his home country following the ill-fated 2017 referendum.

Over 100,000 people joined the rally at a Perpignan Exhibition Center parking lot, according to various estimates. The organizers put the number at as many as 150,000. Some demonstrators went to the city the day before to not miss anything. The number of those trying to attend the event, organized by a group called the Council for the Catalan Republic and headed by Puigdemont himself, was so big that thousands of people were still stuck in traffic on the border when the exiled pro-independence leader was about to begin his speech.

Photos and videos posted on social media show huge crowds of people occupying the broad sun-lit parking lot and waving Catalan flags, as well as holding signs and banners reading: ‘Independence’ and ‘freedom’.

In his short address that lasted only about 12 minutes, Puigdemont took a jab at Madrid by saying that an independent Catalan Republic is the “only way out of a monarchy that descended directly from Francoism.”

He also vowed to “never stop” and called on his supporters to mobilize and “prepare” for future victories. “The state only hears the voice of mobilized people so we must be in a state of constant mobilization.”

The rally was also attended by other pro-independence leaders, including the former education minister, Clara Ponsati, who also addressed the crowd, urging Catalans to “fight the Spanish state both through the institutions and in the streets.” Current Catalan leader Quim Torra delivered a speech as well. Ahead of the event, the exiled Catalan leader was welcomed by Perpignan Mayor Jean-Marc Pujol, who said that “freedom of expression has no borders.”

This is the first time the former Catalan leader, who is wanted in Spain on charges of sedition, has come so close to his homeland. Following the referendum, in which 92 percent voted to split from Spain (with a turnout of 43 percent), Puigdemont was forced to flee from prosecution, along with Ponsati and several other regional government officials, and has resided in Belgium ever since.

In May 2019, Puigdemont was elected to the European Parliament, while the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that his status of MEP grants him parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

The situation in Spain following the referendum, which was met with a brutal crackdown by Spanish law enforcement, remains quite tense. The region has seen massive demonstrations both in favor of independence and unity with Spain.

The jailing of major figures behind the independence push, including Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, by the Spanish authorities only added fuel to the fire as they were met with massive protests as well. Rallies repeatedly spiraled into clashes with police.

October 2019, when the independence leaders received their sentences, saw particularly massive outbreaks of violence as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Barcelona and blocked major regional transport routes as well as the city’s airport.

On Saturday, French authorities took extensive security measures ahead of the rally in Perpignan by mobilizing all regional police forces. Police were additionally reinforced by five gendarmerie squadrons and a riot police company from Carcassonne. The event, however, was peaceful.

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