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World In Spain, tussle over yellow ribbons signals deep split in Catalan society

Members of a regional cleanup brigade remove yellow ribbons representing the politicians and activists who were jailed following last year's illegal vote on independence in Caldes de Malavella, north of Barcelona, Spain Sept. 20, 2018.

ALBERT GEA/Reuters

Around a dozen men and women in white boiler suits, their faces covered with scarves and baseball caps, gather in a car park some 30 km (19 miles) outside Barcelona for a morale-boosting team-meeting before heading out on their evening mission.

In the town of Caldes de Malavella, under cover of darkness, they furtively move among trees and lamp posts cutting off fluttering strips of yellow plastic and dropping them into black refuse sacks for disposal.

One year on from a banned referendum in the northeast region of Catalonia on whether to separate from Spain, the deep split in Catalan society is being played out through tussles over yellow ribbons - a symbol for those favouring independence.

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The ribbons represent the nine politicians and activists in jail awaiting trial for their role in organising the Oct. 1 vote, declared illegal by Madrid and the courts for going against the 1978 constitution which states Spain is indivisible.

Madrid imposed direct rule on Catalonia after it declared independence following the vote. Regional elections later reinstated parties favouring a split with Spain, although the popular vote went to those wanting to remain part of it.

Polls show the two sides roughly evenly split in Catalonia, with neither holding a majority. Given the stalemate, day-to-day relations on the street are deteriorating. Catalans favouring independence have tied yellow ribbons in their thousands to railings, lamp posts and trees and even draped them on beaches.

“There are many people in prison without having had a trial,” says Nusi Gatnau, a 60-year-old teacher walking beside the beach in the seaside town of Blanes. “Putting up ribbons is a peaceful expression of protest. We are not harming anyone with the ribbons,” she says.

But others say the yellow symbols infringe the neutrality of public spaces.

“It makes me angry because the ribbon in itself doesn’t matter but it’s the tool they use to disrupt social harmony,” said Manuel Garcia, restaurant owner in Blanes.

Video footage of Garcia remonstrating with pro-independence activists who tied yellow ribbons to the outside of his restaurant in August made him a hero with those who favour union with Spain and earned him a visit from the newly-elected leader of the centre-right People’s Party (PP), Pablo Casado.

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Back in Caldes de Malavella, a man in a white boiler suit cleans off a sticker reading ‘The Republic’ from a public place name.

“I think we are stronger together. We don’t want to be a small country on our own,” says fellow group member Natalia Leenders, a Dutch woman who has lived in Spain for 20 years. (Reporting By Sonya Dowsett Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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