Financial Times

Last updated: October 10, 2012 11:34 pm

Madrid sparks Catalan language debate

By Miles Johnson and Sophie Cohen in Madrid

Protesters calling for independence for Catalonia©Corbis

Demand spelt out: protesters marching in Barcelona, calling for independence for Catalonia from the rest of Spain

Spain’s government risked inflaming tensions with Catalonia when it said school students from the north-eastern region should be “Hispanicised” by bringing the curriculum under greater central control.

A lack of emphasis of Spanish language and history in Catalan schools had helped foster support for independence in the region, said José Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, just six weeks before Spain’s richest region heads to the polls in what has been billed as a referendum on independence.

“Our interest is to Hispanicise Catalan students, so they feel as proud to be Spanish as they do to be Catalan,” Mr Wert said in response to a question in Spain’s parliament on Wednesday.

“The drift that has taken place in the Catalan education system has facilitated a hiding or minimising of the common elements, particularly the histories that make up the history of Catalonia within Spain”.

Catalan, which was banned under Franco, has become the dominant language among Catalonia’s 7.6m people, and is deemed a vital underpinning of its sense of nationhood.

The reopening of the debate over central control of language and curriculum in schools comes amid a surge in popular separatist sentiment in Catalonia, with the region’s politicians having declared their intentions to hold a referendum on independence if November elections provide a mandate for one.

A recent poll taken by the Centre for Opinion Studies, an official institute of the Catalan government, indicated that 74 per cent of Catalans wanted a referendum to take place. Some conservative politicians in Spain have called for Madrid to respond by recentralising powers.

The minister’s comments provoked an immediate reaction from the Catalan regional government, with Irene Rigau, Catalonia’s education secretary, saying they “confirm there is an offensive under way to change the model of the [Spanish] state”.

Mr Wert’s comments prompted Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, to intervene on the matter at a press conference held in Paris after a meeting with the French president François Hollande, with the Spanish leader calling for Catalonia to be “a good neighbour”.

“I want everyone to be proud of being both Catalan and Spanish,” he said. “I would like everyone to work together, collaborate, co-operate and not create more problems than are strictly necessary”.

In 2009, the Catalan government passed a law to further protect the status of Catalan within the regions’ schools and to “reinforce the importance of Catalan and the way it is taught, being as it is Catalonia’s own language and a factor of social inclusion”.