Spanish PM to visit France to pay tribute to civil war exiles

Spain's prime minister is to travel to France this weekend to pay tribute to the 450,000 Spaniards who sought refuge there at the end of the 1936-39 civil war and the Franco dictatorship that followed.

Spanish PM to visit France to pay tribute to civil war exiles
Refugees crowding a street in the french town of Banyuls, just north of the border with Spain in February 1936.

On Sunday socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will visit several locations in southwestern France that are of historical significance for the exiles along with Spanish Justice Minister Dolores Delgado.

The trip comes as Spain gears up for snap elections on April 28th. During the visit Sanchez will defend the values of “tolerance and reject extremism”, a Spanish government official said.

“During this time of rising populism and intolerance… this makes sense,” he added.

Sanchez is trying to prevent Spain's conservative Popular Party from returning to power with the support of newly-emerged far-right party Vox in the upcoming general election he called last week.

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The two parties oppose Sanchez's policies to try to rehabilitate the memory of the victims of the civil war and Francisco Franco's dictatorship.   

Since coming to power in June, Sanchez has made it a priority to exhume the late dictator from an opulent mausoleum near Madrid to a more discreet spot.   

Franco came to power after the 1936-39 civil war, which was triggered by his rebellion against an elected Republican government. He ruled Spain with an iron first until his death in 1975.


Sanchez will be the first Spanish prime minister while in office to visit the grave of Spain's Republican president Manuel Azana, who died in exile in 1940 in Montauban in southwestern France.

He will then head to the French town of Collioure on the border with Spain to lay flowers on the grave of Spanish poet Antonio Machado.   

Machado is one of the symbols of the “retirada”, or “retreat”, the mass exodus of Spaniards to France through the Pyrenees mountains in February 1939 after Catalonia fell to Franco's forces at the end of the civil war.

Sanchez is also scheduled to deliver a speech at the beach at Argeles-sur-Mer, where thousands of Spanish refugees were interned.   

“The trip has an emotional and political dimension” because these exiles “shared the same aspirations that Spaniards today have,” a government official in Madrid said.

On the French side local officials will take part in the commemorations but not national ones as requested by the Spanish government.

READ ALSO: Spain gives Franco family 15 days to decide reburial

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Spain to exhume bodies of civil war victims at Valley of the Fallen

The Spanish government on Tuesday approved a special fund to exhume graves at the Valley of the Fallen, where thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War and dictator Francisco Franco are buried.

Spain to exhume bodies of civil war victims at Valley of the Fallen
Women hold up pictures of their fathers and relatives, who were condemned to death during Franco’s dictatorship. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP

The Socialist government said it had set aside €665,000 ($780,000) to exhume some 33,000 victims whose remains lie behind a vast basilica near Madrid.

Franco was buried in the basilica when he died in 1975 but his remains were removed in 2019 and transferred to a discreet family plot on the outskirts of the capital.

Government spokesperson Maria Jesus Montera told reporters that more than 60 families and international institutions had called for the exhumation of the victims to give relatives who suffered during the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship “moral reparation”.

Campaigners estimate more than 100,000 victims from the war and its aftermath remain buried in unmarked graves across Spain —- a figure, according to Amnesty International, only exceeded by Cambodia.

Human remains discovered during exhumation works carried out by the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory of Valladolid, in a mass grave where the bodies of hundreds of people were dumped during the Spanish civil war. Photo by CESAR MANSO/AFP

Built between 1940 and 1958 partly by the forced labour of political prisoners, the imposing basilica and the mausoleum of the Valley of the Fallen was initially intended for those who had fought for Franco.

But in 1959 the remains of many Republican opponents were moved there from cemeteries and mass graves across the country without their families being informed.

The crypts and ossuaries where some of the victims are buried are inaccessible as they were walled off at the time.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has made the rehabilitation of the victims of the Franco era one of his priorities since coming to power in 2018.

As well as the Valley of the Fallen, his government is also focusing on identifying remains founds in mass graves across Spain.