Can Europe Make It?

"You, a convicted minister!" - namecalling and mudslinging in the Catalan parliament

Partido Popular MPs lashed out at Catalonia’s education minister for ignoring court rulings on Catalan language use.

Alessio Colonnelli
12 February 2015

Parliament of Catalonia. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Irene Rigau is not easily intimidated. Her mammoth task consists of maintaining the hard-won status of the Catalan language in Catalonia’s schools. Attacks on it are sustained. The last firing squad used words as sharp as bullets; they missed the target, but not by much: the shaken education minister Rigau even managed to shoot back in the corridors of Barcelona’s autonomous parliament: the tone of her reply spoke volumes about her determination. She’s really fighting tooth and nail. Let’s have a look at the whole story.

The court rulings: less Catalan, more Spanish

The Generalitat (Catalonia’s autonomous government) has been more than once reprimanded by judges for ignoring their rulings. It perseveres instead in its policy of obligatory Catalan language immersion in all schools across the region without paying any attention to the courts who say this practice must be avoided.

Judges have also time and time again ruled that Catalan schools need to ask families whether their children’s habitual language is either Catalan or Spanish when pre-enrolling (what if they are familiar with both?) This happens not just in the first year of primary school, but also in the last year of nursery. At a very young age, then.

One is left wondering whether such formal questions (official paperwork has to be filled in and signed) are perhaps intrusive and could over time impinge on families’ natural behaviour in their own homes: some may feel intimidated into artificially adopting one language instead of the other because of institutional pressures. A questionnaire that leaves much to be desired, pedagogically speaking. Tribunals have been called in to help exert pressure – a lot of politics and very little about linguistics.

What on the other hand seems to be a lot more acceptable from an educational perspective is the so-called “Individualized linguistic support” (Atención lingüística individualizada). This is a psychologically considerate method; for those children who struggle to understand instructions in Catalan, an explanation in Spanish is readily available: a sympathetic way of gently introducing a child into the workings of a language that is however – it must be remembered – a romance language, i.e. a lexically and syntactically close relative of Spanish (phonetic disparities are fairly marked though). This attentive approach, however, was puzzlingly also ruled against by the Supreme Court in 2012.

The parliamentary squabble

Catalonia’s education minister Irene Rigau was confronted in the Catalan parliament on 3 February about her unwillingness to push the court rulings through. María José García Cuevas from right-of-centre Partido Popular (PP) reproachfully scorned Rigau for her alleged brazen, disrespectful behaviour of the Spanish law and called her repeatedly ‘You, a convicted minister!’

Rigau promptly asked not to be addressed in that way (she has not personally been convicted by any tribunals), but MP García Cuevas unrepentantly used the same expression apparently three more times, according to reports by Barcelona-based media outlets Crónica Global and Nació Digital.


The ultimate intention of the court rulings is to ascertain what language a child normally uses ‘in order to make sure he or she can rightfully receive their primary education in that language.’ That’s precisely what PP is aiming at: to make a point about the absolute equal status of Catalan and Spanish, in the hope that the latter will eventually prevail: the bullying character in the local theatre of perennial linguistic litigations.

Catalan does not automatically come first and it shouldn’t feel settled in its leading role is what PP is saying. And yet Catalan has nonetheless become the first language of choice for many, as it’s locally perceived – whether rightly or wrongly – as the language of success in life.

In such an intricate case, the rule of thumb should be to ascertain what families wish for their offspring; they should be able to choose the language in which their children are taught in the first years of education. In practice this is unviable. Living in Catalonia should command respect towards established authorities and their main language of use: in el Parlament only eight MPs out of 135 stubbornly continue to use Spanish without ever uttering a word of Catalan, the main language of professional life as the names of the Catalan chambers of commerce directors seem to confirm.

Everybody can speak Spanish in Catalonia; it is Catalan that makes the difference. It’s become a privilege to be able to command it fluently. To try and deprive children of such a learning opportunity sounds bizarre at best and counterproductive at worst; against all logic in any case.

An understandable anxious zeal

Current practices in education are heavily pro-Catalan and are thus perhaps biased in their determination to put Catalan first at any cost to the detriment of Spanish. An understandable anxious zeal, given its recent underdog past. Studies have however proved that the young Catalonians’ knowledge of Spanish is not inferior to their contemporaries’ from the rest of Spain.

More and more young people have become bilingual (monolingual Catalan native speakers don’t really exist) in a way that those – now parents themselves – who were born in the 70s and early 80s couldn’t, as secondary school history teacher Francisco M. Toro explains in a Crónica Global piece titled ‘The linguistic string’. He explains that these ambitious individuals tend to frustratingly feel second-class Catalans: having been brought up in working-class or lower-middle class families in the suburbs in Spanish only, they happened to experience Catalan language, culture and traditions from afar; often only on TV.

One thing is certain: the courts’ repeated rulings against Rigau’s ministry do sound a bit biased; they don’t  acknowledge the awesome job that’s been carried out in Catalonia – bilingualism can now be universally achieved: a synaptic feast. In a land where the levers of power have lately been in the hands of native Catalan speakers, making the language available to everyone is an act of generosity. Social mobility is very much on the Catalan education ministry’s agenda.

Wealthy South Tyrol in Italy, by way of comparison, where the main language of power and business is German, has successfully kept a minority of native Italian speakers at bay: there, unlike Catalonia’s, the local education system is a dual one, a way of making sure only very few Italians get to learn German properly. Privilege remains there what it really is: something you are not supposed to share.

That afternoon in el Parlament – a display of understatement and determination

PP’s attitude in all this smacks of a type of politics informed by age-old sectarian views; it sadly involves children’s future and happiness; their self-fulfilment. Attacking Rigau won’t bring anything valuable for anybody but the party itself. The minister (a former primary school teacher of Catalan) has showed determination in doing her legitimate bit to protect the still fragile status of Catalan in Spain. Far from being a convicted cultural criminal, Rigau is proving a sensible public administration functionary.

‘Earlier you called me a “convicted minister”. What do you think you’re playing at?’ asked the education minister that afternoon in the glorious corridors of Barcelona’s autonomous parliament right after the debate. Alícia Sánchez-Camacho – the PP’s leader in Catalonia – came up in support of her colleague García Cuevas; her crude reply was: ‘What d’you mean? You threatenin’ us?’ which she shouted twice. Rigau thought better of it, did not reply and walked on. Sánchez-Camacho shouted once more after her from the distance, her words reverberating under the vaults: ‘You threatenin’ us?’

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