(CN) – It's the end of the last great symbol of Spain's dictatorship.
That's how Spain's major newspaper El Pais described the removal Thursday of the wooden coffin containing the remains of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco from a massive mausoleum in the hills outside of Madrid.
Spain was riveted by television images of Franco's family carrying the dictator's coffin out the grand doors of a basilica where he was interred and carefully placing the draped casket into the back of a hearse.
Spaniards then watched as a helicopter took the coffin to the Mingorrubio cemetery near Madrid where Franco's wife is buried. His remains were entombed at a small mausoleum with solemnity. About 500 of the dictator's admirers gathered outside the cemetery. Some held Franco-era flags and symbols, chanted “Viva Franco” and clashed with television crews filming the demonstration.
Thursday's events capped a years-long political and legal campaign by Spain's Socialists to remove Franco from inside a cathedral at the Valley of the Fallen, an ostentatious monument Franco had built to honor those who died in Spain's civil war. After his death in 1975, Franco was interred behind the cathedral's altar and the site became a gathering point for Franco's admirers and a tribute to fascism.
Spain's interim Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said the exhumation “puts an end to a moral affront that is the exaltation of a dictator in a public place.”
His tomb inside the basilica at the heart of the Valley of the Fallen was viewed by many as Europe's last public monument dedicated to fascism. Supporters of the removal called it an important moment for Spain's democracy, which was restored only three years after Franco's death.
But Spanish society remains deeply divided over Franco's legacy and there were many in Spain opposed to the removal.
In the days leading up to the exhumation, people flocked to the Valley of the Fallen to pay homage to Franco. The rush to visit the mausoleum was so heavy traffic to the site came to a standstill. Franco admirers were known for standing over his tomb and making the fascist salute.
Spain's right-wing parties were opposed to the exhumation and decried the Socialist government's move as a ploy to score political points ahead of a Nov. 10 election. Spain has been in a political stalemate for months because the governing Socialists have been unable to form a government.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, said Spain's Socialists and left-wing forces have the “ultimate goal” of overthrowing Spain's monarchy now that Franco's exhumation has been achieved.
“The objective is to take away the legitimacy of the crown, overthrow [King] Philip VI and tear down the cross of the Valley of the Fallen,” Abascal said in an interview on Spanish radio. There is a massive cross visible from miles away at the Valley of the Fallen.
The removal of Franco's remains was given the green light in September by Spain's Supreme Court. Franco's family sought to stop the exhumation, saying it was an act of desecration. A Catholic prior at the mausoleum also vehemently opposed the government's plan.
A 2007 Historical Memory Law passed by a former Socialist government paved the way for the removal. The legislation prohibited having Franco's remains in a public place that exalted him as a political figure. The law also aims to seek redress for the estimated 100,000 victims of the civil war and the Franco era who are buried in unmarked graves, including thousands at the Valley of the Fallen.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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