Black and white photo of Spanish dictator Franco and wife waving to supporters outside ornate stone doorway

Nationalist, populist parties appear to be gaining ground across Europe. On the surface, Spain appears to be unaffected. But whilst no extremist ‘alt-right’ party has emerged, Max Graham argues that the conservative People’s Party has filled that vacuum by upholding Franco’s legacy.

Driving from Madrid to Salamanca this summer, I passed the enormous stone cross erected by the victorious Nationalist forces following the end of Spain’s civil war. This monument marks the site of el Valle de los Caídos – the Valley of the Fallen – and was built with slave labour to honour the Nationalist dead and eventually serve as the final resting place for the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. It towers menacingly over the land, as does el Caudillo’s oppressive legacy. I arrived in Salamanca just weeks after the removal of another symbol of the dictatorship. An image of Franco, alongside those of Spain’s past rulers, was wiped from the façade of the town hall in the main square.

Despite the conflicts that the Franco era still provokes in modern day Spain, videos showed only crowds of cheering people celebrating his removal. This naturally brings to mind similar events happening concurrently with Confederate statues in the United States. As in the USA, opinion in Spain splits along ideological lines. Supporters of Franco are firmly on the authoritarian, nationalist end of the political spectrum and are not insignificant in number. So who represents such supporters on Spain’s national stage?


We are well familiar now with the narrative of a wave of anti-immigrant, reactionary populism and nationalism sweeping Europe and the USA. However, this particular wave does not seem to have reached Spain’s costas. There has been no emergence of a nationwide movement in Spain – or indeed in Portugal – representing the far-right since the financial crisis. This stands in contrast to Italy and Greece, the other European countries worst affected by the crisis. Italy has the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, while Greece has Golden Dawn. Although these parties certainly vary in the extent of their extremism, all share a deep strand of illiberal, anti-establishment authoritarianism, and anti-European populism.

In contrast, all national parties in Spain are pro-European to varying degrees. The radical left-wing party Podemos, like its Greek sister party, Syriza, is critical of the EU’s fiscal austerity (among other things) but on the whole remains supportive of Spain’s membership of the bloc. Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos (Citizens) which emerged as a national party in 2015, describes Catalonia as his home, Spain as his country, and Europe as his future.

There has been no emergence of a nationwide movement in Spain representing the far-right since the financial crisis.

Indeed, there is a broad consensus in Spain that the national destiny lies within the European Union and an awareness that it was EU structural funds that helped to modernise the Spanish economy following the country’s transition to democracy. Spain also sees itself as a bridge between Europe and Latin America, in the same way as the UK does with North America – until Brexit, of course.

That is not to say that these nativist, xenophobic parties do not exist in Spain – they do, but their support is so vanishingly small as to be considered negligible.

In the last two general elections, in 2015 and 2016, such parties polled a total of 0.26 percent and 0.24 percent of the vote respectively. It is in fact the governing Partido Popular (People’s Party), or PP, which absorbs most of the far right support that, in other European countries, would be given to different parties. In order to understand why, it’s necessary to return to Franco.


In Spain, the fact that there are still people who feel nostalgia for what was undoubtedly a repressive and brutal dictatorship demonstrates that society has not overcome the divisions that provoked the civil war in 1936. This much is evident in the current constitutional crisis in Catalonia that has engulfed the country. There are still many people in Spain who feel some deep-rooted attachment to Franco.

One visible manifestation of this support comes on the 20 November, the anniversary of Franco’s death, when in certain parts of Spain, the Francoist national flag can be seen hanging from windows and balconies. Its black eagle is a sinister blot on the red and yellow background, and I remember my shock at seeing it for the first time. It would be unthinkable to see openly fascist symbolism in Italy or Germany. I recall also my astonishment when visiting the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid in 2014, where one lady supervising an exhibition told me that Franco was “Spain’s greatest leader” and that democracy was “a load of shit” which had brought the country to its knees.

There are still over 2,000 unmarked mass graves across the country, putting Spain second behind only Cambodia in terms of the number of disappeared victims of political repression.

In 2007, the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Workers Socialist Party) government set about making amends for Spain’s fascist past. La ley de la memoria histórica, the historical memory law, aimed to give rights to the victims of the civil war repeal Francoist laws, and remove Francoist symbols. The law has allowed for the exhumation of many of the mass graves around the country so that families can find out the truth about their relatives’ fate and lay them to rest with dignity, funded by the state.

The PP voted against this legislation although, since they came to power in 2011, the party has not tried to revoke or amend it (despite some calling for it). However, the PP has made severe cuts to the law’s funding, citing austerity measures necessitated by the financial crisis. The UN recently issued a warning to the government, citing concern at the lack of progress in providing justice for its citizens. There are still over 2,000 unmarked mass graves across the country, putting Spain second behind only Cambodia in terms of the number of disappeared victims of political repression. The PP has also opposed changing Francoist street names, most notably in Madrid in 2015 with the justification that “we learn from the past.”

Two men wave towards the camera before a background of a crowd waving blue PP flags.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (right) with the Valencian party leader at a rally in 2011. Image: Partido Popular Flickr account [CC:BY 2.0]

The PP has long been closely associated with Franco and his legacy. In the years following Franco’s death, the PP’s predecessor, the Popular Alliance (AP), agreed with the PSOE el pacto del olvido, or pact of forgetting, to prevent the prosecution of Francoist officials and thereby promote ‘national reconciliation.’ The AP was founded by seven former Francoist officials, prominent among them Manuel Fraga and Federico Silva Muñoz, who had been senior figures in the regime in the 1950s and 1960s. Following splits and on-going internecine struggles between various right wing factions throughout the 1980s, conservatives moderates and hardliners eventually coalesced and consolidated into the Popular Party.

The influence of Francoist politics on the PP extends far beyond the party’s origins. Margarita Mariscal de Gante, whose father played a key role in press censorship under Franco, served as PP Justice Minister from 1996-2000. Gabriel Arias-Salgado was a post-war governor and later Information Minister under Franco, as well as a high-ranking member of the fascist Falange party. His son Rafael occupied several ministerial posts in the 1990s. In fact, most of the party’s current management is controlled by those with family who were either directly linked to the regime or who openly supported it.

In 2003, the then PP government gave a public grant of over 150,000 euros to the National Francisco Franco Foundation (FNFF), which is dedicated to preserving and glorifying the dictator’s memory and is headed by the dictator’s daughter. The party responded to criticism by saying that the FNFF had as much right to apply for public money as any other organisation. As recently as July of this year, the foundation has publicly supported PP policy and in 2016 three PP figures received awards at a commemorative dinner organised by the FNFF.


Maintaining the support of the far right has been crucial to the party’s continued electoral success. Despite widespread corruption scandals reaching to the top echelons of the PP – with Prime Minister Rajoy himself recently summoned to give evidence at an investigatory tribunal – the party has lived up to its name in recent years, consistently polling at least eight points higher than its opponents.

Although the party has been relatively successful in detoxifying its brand in recent years, the current actions of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government towards Catalonia’s devolved institutions carry chilling echoes of the repressiveness of the old regime. Yet it is true that there has not been the same expression in Spain of the xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric which has crept into the political discourse of many other European states – indeed, Spain has very successfully integrated many migrants into society.

The PP’s hard-line response to recent events in Catalonia is arguably calculated to appeal to the party’s Spanish nationalist base.

In recent years, Spaniards have not turned against the foreigners in their midst, but against their own compatriots. As support for Catalan nationalist parties has surged in the years since the financial crisis, so has resentment and tension between two irreconcilable camps: those who believe in absolute Spanish unity and those for whom there is no alternative to Catalan independence.

However, just as not all Catalan separatists are anti-Spanish, not all those who believe in Spanish unity are Franco sympathisers. But the PP’s hard-line response to recent events in Catalonia is arguably calculated to appeal to the party’s Spanish nationalist base, whose support Rajoy needs to maintain his shaky hold on power in minority government. Indeed, el Caudillo would no doubt have approved of the Spanish government’s authoritarian and violent response to Catalonia’s illegal referendum. Franco may have died in bed in Madrid in 1975, but Francoism is alive and well.

A large cross stands on a hill above Franco's mausoleum.
El Valle de los Caídos – the Valley of the Fallen. The final resting place of Franco and 40,000 civil war dead. Image: Sigils [CC BY-SA 3.0 ES]

While it is reasonable to argue that the lack of an avowedly far-right, nativist party with any substantial support in Spain is to be welcomed, the existence of these parties in other countries has the virtue of making them visible, tangible, and therefore opposable.  However, the far right in Spain – which nurtures the repressive legacy of Franco and is cloaked in the legitimising support of Spanish national sovereignty and unity – is more clandestine and therefore more insidious in nature. Ultimately, it is harmful to Spanish democracy.

There is still a need to confront Spain’s dictatorial past – the wounds inflicted by the Franco era will only continue to fester without proper treatment. However, it is unlikely that Spain will take this particular bull by the horns anytime in the near future. And while removing Franco’s image from city squares is a good place to start, his mausoleum in the Valle de los Caídos will loom over Spain for a long time to come.

Max Graham is a graduate of the University of St Andrews and has just completed a year of postgraduate study at Emory University in Atlanta. He has previously interned with the European Union and the Carter Center. He can be found on Twitter at @maxjgraham

Feature image: Francisco Franco and his wife, Carmen Polo, at a religious ceremony in Santa María church in Burgos. Image: Vicente Martín [CC BY 3.0]