Spirit of the Franco era lives on: Fascism is on the rise in Spain on the 100th anniversary of the late dictator's birth, Phil Davison reports from Madrid

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The Independent Online
HE WAS nicknamed 'Paquito' - little Paco, the common term of endearment for those christened Francisco, when he was born 100 years ago today in the Galician town of El Ferrol. Many years later, while he ruled with an iron fist for almost four decades, the nickname would be used in whispers by those who felt certain they would not be overheard - he was sensitive about his lack of height.

In public, they called him 'El Caudillo', the leader, or 'El Generalisimo', the Greatest of Generals, the Sentinel of the West, Defender of the Faith and a host of other superlatives perpetuating the divine image he created and had long since begun to believe.

The centenary of Francisco Franco's birth has brought a flood of new books on the dictator's life and career; newspapers this week published supplements to mark the event. Two weeks ago, to mark the 17th anniversary of his death, his supporters sponsored a special phone line, using the prefix usually associated with the popular 'erotic conversation' lines, on which callers could listen to Franco's voice in highlights of his greatest speeches. 'The glorious ones, fallen for God and Spain, are present. Viva Franco. Up with Spain,' said a voice introducing the speeches.

The two anniversaries have always seen small demonstrations by Franco's supporters. But this year the atmosphere is different and the true extent of Franco's legacy, until now bottled up in a kind of national amnesia, is beginning to surface as never before.

First, there was the backdrop of racist attacks in Germany, apparently encouraging those in Spain who share such racist ideas but who have lain relatively low since the anti-Fascist backlash of democracy swept the nation in the years after Franco's death.

Then there were the Fascist and racist slogans daubed on walls across Madrid. And on 13 November, four gunmen killed a woman from the Dominican Republic at a squat in Madrid.

Last week, a policemen was arrested for the murder, along with three right-wing teenagers, one of whom, wearing the blue shirt of Franco's Fascists, had just been at a pro-Franco rally and was said by neighbours to play the dictator's speeches at ear-splitting volume.

Another group of right-wing rapadas (skinheads) were arrested for the manslaughter of a Moroccan immigrant in Madrid the day after the Dominican woman was killed. The Moroccan hit his head on a pavement after the youths insulted him and knocked him over. 'He refused to get out the way,' one of the youths told the police.

And on the day the world was shocked by the firebombing of Turkish women in Germany, what might have turned into a similar tragedy was receiving a few paragraphs hidden away in Spanish newspapers: Fascist youths had tried to set fire to a house occupied by immigrants in the town of Palencia but had only succeeded in burning the door. Such incidents, still isolated, do not mean a serious resurgence of Fascism in Spain. But they were enough to jolt Spaniards into a realisation that franquismo may not be dead, only hibernating. The sliding popularity of Felipe Gonzalez's Socialists, the rising crime rate, widespread drug abuse and the surging cost of living are grist to the mill of the extreme right wing, while the political right has moved towards the centre in an attempt to win Socialist votes. 'With Franco we didn't have to pay the kind of taxes we now suffer,' wrote Maria Victoria Sanz to the daily newspaper, ABC, recently. 'With Franco, we could go out in the street at any time. With Franco we had secure jobs. We had hospitals and there wasn't a drugs problem. With Franco, our soldiers didn't have to risk their lives in far-off conflicts.' She was referring to Spanish UN troops in Bosnia, but appeared to have forgotten that Franco sent Hitler a 'Blue Division' to fight on the Russian front. Such sentiments are echoed as the taboo of right- wing sentiment wears off.

Almost half of Spaniards today have no experience of the dictator's rule. It is difficult to imagine that the executions he ordered, the cultural genocide he committed on the Basque land and Catalonia, or that his crushing of women's rights happened less than 20 years ago in a country now seen as an important member of the European Community. Basques still recall how, if they were caught speaking their own language, the Guardia Civil would order them to 'speak Christian' and could even jail them.

Last week the dictator's former foreign minister, Ramon Serrano Suner, described how, during Spain's Moroccan war, a Spanish legionnaire accidentally spilt food on Franco's uniform. The future dictator slowly brushed off the food, pulled out his pistol and shot the unfortunate man dead.

The story of how he signed execution warrants while he ate chocolates are legendary but dismissed as exaggerated by his admirers. 'Franco didn't like chocolate,' said Professor Luis Suarez.

(Photographs omitted)

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