Salvador Cardús has come to Paris to give a lecture at the Maison de l’Europe. Most of the attendees, Catalans living in Paris, have turned up to get the lowdown on the new draft Statute of Autonomy which, after undergoing substantial cuts in Madrid, will be submitted to a referendum on June 18. Conversely, the idea of autonomy makes the hair of the French stand on end. Most will squirm in their seats when this university professor and journalist assures them that “Catalans need more skills to face up to new challenges such as immigration,” or that Catalonia is going through an “economic downturn as a result of abusive financial solidarity with the rest of Spain,” or that “there is political dissatisfaction on questions of culture and identity”.
I don’t know if he succeeded in persuading the French, but we meet the next day with this occasional Catalonian ambassador in Paris in a traditional French restaurant, Chez Camille, in the Marais quarter. We’re slotted in between two couples, with a hair’s breadth between the two tables and a different conversation in each ear. The eyes of this 52-year old sociologist wander playfully among the people. What’s going on? “Nothing, some European customs won’t change, such as taking some time off to eat in a restaurant. On the other hand, people in the United States will eat anything at any time.”
This sociology professor from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB) has just come back from the Cornell University, where he had spent three months working in the Institute for European Studies as part of a research group on immigration. Comparisons with the United States are unavoidable. “I was surprised at the level of confidence US citizens have in their own society. People are very friendly, everyone smiles. In New York, I dared to leave my jacket hanging on the chair while I went to the toilet.” However, the sociologist believes that European society is “older, more cynical, less naïve.”
What shocked me most is that US citizens don’t complain. “In our country, people spend the whole day complaining: everything’s going wrong, the politicians are corrupt, the university system is broken, the streets are filthy, the neighbours are...” He sighs and wonders: “Do we live so badly?” He pauses to thrust his fork into a piece of veal until it oozes a bright red juice. “We’re a demoralized, tired society. However, what’s going through a crisis is our own perception of reality, rather than reality itself.” The juicy veal travels from plate to mouth and the sociologist continues, choosing his words with care: “We’re likely to find it hard to take on board the current social complexity which makes it difficult for us to have the kind of strong political and intellectual leadership we were once used to. He cites examples such as former presidents François Mitterrand of France and Jordi Pujol of Catalonia.
What are they complaining about?
Cardús remarks that everyone is talking about crisis in the French capital, but he looks at it as a Catalan: “When you arrive in Paris, you realize the power of the French state. When they plan to build a national library, it emerges as a proper library, and when you see their museums, you’re left speechless. If they want to cry, let them cry, but frankly, they seem like crocodile tears to me.”
“I think that Catalonia is suffering from a lack of historical power. We’ve never had the ability to be powerful,” regrets the professor, who has given numerous lectures abroad. “In the intellectual sphere, good ideas have sometimes emerged but they didn’t evolve because we didn’t have the possibility to export and internationalize them.”
A self-made people
In spite of this shortcoming, Cardús is someone who sees the glass half full. “At times, we’ve at times fallen victim to bad temptations offered by those in power. For instance, people wonder how it was possible that migratory flows coming from the rest of Spain from the 1950s through the 1960s did not lead to violent social conflict in Catalonia. Nothing happened because we had no power. There was no state that could be tempted to try to control this flow, to impose rules... We had to get by alone.”
Salvador Cardús believes that the success of the immigration process is due to Spain being a “poorly supervised society.” Cardús compares the situation in the late Franco era with the current situation, where the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has passed one of the most restrictive anti-tobacco laws in Europe. “I think that so much supervision could rob us of our vitality. Formerly, we used to sweep the pavement on the other side of the street, but now we tend to blame the City for the fact that it’s dirty and resign ourselves to living in a dirty street”.
Dreams of independence
Why does Catalonia need to reform its current Statute of 1979? “Catalonia feels like an adolescent living at home with his parents and resenting them for not giving him enough money. We Catalans feel like making our own decisions, and coming of age.”
Cardús adds: “We want improved financing in order to decide on our future, not financing based on resentment from historical injustices.” And what about the independence of Catalonia? “I don’t think that’s possible. What would we do after that?
I see politics as an Ithaca rather than an Arcadia.” The professor’s eyes are shining behind his almost transparent glasses: “I’m a nationalist because I believe my country has a future.”
His recent memories of the USA dominate the end of the conversation. “If I were 25 years old, I’d go to live there for 5 years. They’re spectacularly receptive to new ideas,” assures Cardús. However, the professor believes that “they pay a very high price for being that way. They don’t have any type of bond with their territory and they’re permanently moving.” Tears of joy well up in his eyes as he remembers a concert by the Irishwoman Mary Black: “It was an unforgettable experience,” he recalls, but then his expression changes immediately: “It’s a shame that I didn’t have anyone to share my emotions with, because I was completely alone.”
And he ends with his gaze focused on Catalonia: “Sooner or later, we all have a need to put down roots, and in my country we live very well and find it difficult to move.”