People demonstrate against plans by Spain's Socialist government to remove the remains of fascist dictator Francisco Franco from the Valle de los Caidos state-funded mausoleum in San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain, on Sunday. (Javier Barbancho/Reuters)

About 33 miles outside Madrid, a 500-foot cross sits atop a basilica at a monument known as the Valle de los Caídos or “Valley of the Fallen.” Deep inside the monument's ornate underground crypt lie the remains of Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975.

At least for now. Spain’s newly minted Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has pledged to exhume Franco and remove him from the site. The proposal has reignited a divisive, long-running debate in Spain about Franco's state-supported resting place and prompted protests by far-right supporters.

On Sunday, nearly 1,000 such protesters gathered outside the Valle de los Caídos, demanding that Franco’s remains stay exactly where they are. Raising their arms to give fascist salutes, the protesters sang the anthem of the fascist Falange party and chanted slogans such as: “Don’t touch the Valley” and “Franco, Franco, Franco!” Spanish newspaper El País reported.

The debate has been running since at least 2007 when the Spanish government passed the “Historical Memory Law” that formally condemned the Franco regime and recognized those who suffered under his rule. The bill called for the removal of all Francoist symbols, but it excepted the Valle de los Caídos on the premise that it was a historical and religious site.

Originally built to honor those who died in the Spanish Civil War, the Valle de los Caídos contains the remains of more than 33,000 people. But only two are buried inside the basilica: Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange party that fought on Franco's side during the war and supported his rule.


Demonstrators give the fascist salute as they protest the exhumation of late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco at the Valle de los Caídos memorial in San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain, on Sunday. (Juan Carlos Hidalgo/EPA-EFE)

Left-leaning political and activist groups opposed the Historical Memory Law at the time, saying it did not do enough to provide justice to victims of Franco’s regime, and many have since called for the government to do more. Most recently, Socialist party spokesman Oscar Puente said the site should be transformed into a “place of reconciliation, of memory, for all Spaniards, and not of apology for the dictatorship,” the Guardian reported.

“What most activists want is to contextualize the monument because as it stands today, it basically looks like a shrine,” said Omar Encarnación, a professor at Bard College in New York state who has studied Spanish politics for more than 20 years.

“No European country has anything similar to this,” Encarnación said. But the idea of exhuming Franco’s remains is “hugely, hugely controversial,” he explained, and not just among the far-right Franco defenders who regularly trek up to his tomb in northern Spain to pay homage to the dictator. More than 40 years after his death, a sizable segment of the Spanish public, especially among conservatives, believes that “somehow, he saved the country and that he did a lot for the country,” Encarnación said.

Polls assessing Spanish attitudes toward Franco are not regularly conducted, but the most recent, a 2008 study from the Spanish Center for Sociological Research found that close to 60 percent of respondents believed that the fascist leader did “both good and bad things” for the country.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Spanish Center for Sociological Research study found that more 73 percent of respondents were satisfied with the way Franco led the country through the Spanish Civil War. The study said that 73 percent of respondents were satisfied with Spain's transition to democracy, which occurred after Franco's death.

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