The final fall of Franco: night-time raid pulls down dictator's last statue in Madrid

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The Independent Online

Nearly 30 years after the death of the dictator, it took a heavily guarded operation mounted at the dead of night to clear the last remaining statue of Francisco Franco from the streets of Madrid.

Scores of supporters and opponents of Franco watched with emotion as eight workmen, armed with picks, drills and blowtorches, removed the 7-metre bronze equestrian statue of Spain's former dictator from its pedestal in the Plaza San Juan de la Cruz in the early hours yesterday.

A handful of die-hard supporters raised their right arms stiffly, shouted "Franco! Franco! Franco!" and sang the Fascist anthem "Cara al Sol" (Face the Sun) as workers wrestled for more than half an hour to lever the statue from its foundations.

Left-wingers joined the spectacle, laughing and cheering the fall of the Spanish capital's last public relic of a 40-year dictatorship that ended in 1975. The opposed camps exchanged insults and some scuffles while police reinforcements, including a surveillance helicopter, rushed to the scene.

"At last they've got rid of Paco [Francisco]. About time too," cried one onlooker. "How dare they remove the statue that is part of our history," protested another. It was for all parties a deeply symbolic moment.

Finally, at around 2.30am, canvas straps were slung beneath the belly of the horse, the statue was hoisted by a huge crane on to a lorry, covered with a white cloth and driven away. The Public Works Minister, Magdalena Alvarez, said she would launch a "competition of ideas" to replace the work with "a symbol representing harmony among Spaniards".

The bald, portly generalissimo, his right hand raised in command, had bestrode his horse outside the Public Works Ministry since 1956. Every year around 20 November, the day Franco died, his supporters, known as nostalgicos, have rallied in dwindling numbers around the statue to honour his memory. They listened to fiery speeches, some of them clad in the blue-shirted uniform of the Falange, jackboots included. For the rest of the year protesters intermittently daubed the statue with red paint and slogans.

Ms Alvarez said the removal of the statue was necessary as part of the building works for a large rail tunnel that is to cross the capital from north to south - a project that has caused such disruption that locals have ironically dubbed it "the tunnel of laughs". She added that the statue was "not appreciated by most citizens".

Created by the sculptor José Caput, the imposing statue that much enhances the dumpy dictator was inspired by a 16th-century work by the Italian master Donatello. Anti-Franco campaigners have demanded its removal for years.

The socialist Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, promised late last year to remove all Francoist images and names from Spanish streets during his government. Similar equestrian statues of Franco remain in prominent sites in Santander and Zaragoza.

Mr Zapatero's attitude contrasts with that of his socialist predecessor Felipe González who, throughout his government from 1982 to 1995, made no effort to expunge memorials to Franco, respecting a tacit agreement among all parties not to stir up recent conflicts.

Flames of that debate flickered again yesterday, as Mr Zapatero's critics accused him of undermining the principle of national reconciliation. "They could not have done worse," complained Javier Arenas, secretary general of the conservative opposition Popular Party. The action risked "opening unnecessary wounds in Spanish society", he said.

The PP's parliamentary leader, Eduardo Zaplana, condemned Mr Zapatero's government for its "new radicalism" in overturning the low-key policy of Mr Gonzalez.

Polemic flared last November when no one could be found who admitted to owning the statue. Madrid's town hall said it belonged to the public works ministry, the ministry said it belonged to the national heritage body, and the heritage body said it wasn't on their books.

Which must have made Ms Alvarez smile yesterday. The statue would remain in a ministry warehouse, she said, "until its owner claimed it".