In Depth

Franco’s remains expose Spain’s modern-day divisions

Long-running battle to rebury dictator ‘undeniable triumph’ for ruling Socialists amid accusations of political opportunism

The remains of Spain’s former fascist dictator Francisco Franco have been moved from the state mausoleum where they have lain for more than four decades, bringing an end to a long-running controversy that has exposed the deep divisions within the country.

 After “four decades of democracy, political perseverance, a tortuous legal process and a war of words with the Vatican”, says The Irish Times, a crowd of reporters and onlookers gathered yesterday at the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid to watch as Franco’s coffin was taken by helicopter to rest in his family vault north of the capital.

His exhumation and reburial “is the most significant move in years by Spanish authorities to lay the ghost of the general whose legacy still divides the country he dominated for nearly four decades”, Reuters reports.

Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, said the exhumation was “a step towards reconciliation”, but “it has been criticised by opposition parties as divisive, in a country where scars from the brutal 1936-39 Civil War that brought Franco to power still linger”, say The Independent.

The general’s resting place had become a place of pilgrimage for Franco loyalists, while for those who lost loved ones at the hands of his death squads, the move had become a cause celebre.

Although almost two-thirds of the population had not yet been born during his reign, the relocation of Franco's tomb “continues to fracture Spanish opinion”, says the Daily Mail. A poll in newspaper El Mundo this month showed 43% of Spaniards favoured the transfer of Franco’s remains while 32.5% opposed it.

“The path to the exhumation has not been easy,” says The Guardian. Opposition had come from the dictator’s family, from the National Francisco Franco Foundation, which exists to preserve and promote his legacy, and from the abbot of the valley, a former candidate for the fascist Falange party.

Thursday, though, marks “a symbolic but undeniable triumph for the socialist government of Pedro Sanchez”, says the paper.

His party has long argued that the site, built on Franco’s orders by slave labourers, containing the remains of combatants from both sides and surmounted by a 150-metre cross, had glorified the dictator while ignoring the 500,000 people killed during the civil war.

But the timing of the exhumation - less than three weeks before Spain’s fourth general election in as many years - has led to accusations it was primarily a political stunt.

The New York Times reports that Sanchez “will be able to claim that he did away with a historical injustice. It will be true. It will also be true that, at this point, it’s mostly symbolic: it does not make the official policy any more progressive; it just brings a shade of good old left-wing polish to it”.

Yet the move has also drawn criticism from the left, with Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the anti-austerity Unidas-Podemos, accusing Sanchez of “bringing the mummy out in a helicopter” for political ends as way of distracting from recent unrest in Catalonia.

The fight over Franco’s remains is just one of many dealing with the legacy of his reign.

“Though democracy is well established now, many believe the country has never faced up to its fascist past” says the BBC. It describes an unwritten “pact of forgetting” during the transition, aided by an amnesty law adopted in 1977 that prevented any criminal investigation into the Franco years.

In 2007, the Spanish government passed the Law of Historical Memory, which formally condemned the Franco regime and banned political events at the Valley of the Fallen. It also recognised the victims of the civil war and the Francoist state, and pledged aid to them and their descendants.

“But the work to locate and rebury thousands of civil war dead has been slow and controversial,” says the BBC, with more than 100,000 victims of the conflict, and the ferocious repression carried out afterwards, still missing.

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