Thousands hold pro Catalan rally in southern France

Perpignan (France) (AFP) - Several thousand people demonstrated Saturday in the southwestern French city of Perpignan to demand their Catalan heritage be spelt out after nationwide territorial reforms.

Organisers said as many as 10,000 people gathered -- police put the figure at some 7,800 people -- to demand their newly-merged region contain the words "Pays catalan" (Catalan land).

The new region merging Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees is slated to be called Occitania following 2014 reforms shrinking the number of French regions from 22 to 13 in an administrative shake-up.

But, in a much smaller echo of the spat between Barcelona and Madrid across the border with Spain, where many Catalans support full independence, 450,000 or so French Catalans want to see their identity literally put on the map.

Many marchers wore badges urging "yes to Pays Catalan" badges as they converged on Perpignan's main Catalonia Square and waved a banners proclaiming "pride an honour to speak a language with a great history -- even if the Catalan tongue is spoken far more widely across the border.

Red- and yellow-striped Catalan flags fluttered in the capital of the Pyrenees-Orientales department as the protesters embarked on their rally a day ahead of Catalan national day, La Diada, marked on Sunday.

June saw a plenum of regional councillors vote for Occitania with the added subtitle of "Pyrenees-Mediterranean.

"We are waiting for the decree to be signed before appealing to the council of state," said Joan Becat, spokesman for a pressure group urging the addition of Pays Catalan to the new region.

Some locals see the choice of Occitania as wide of the cultural mark. Some people in parts of southern France as well as Spain and Italy speak Occitan, a Romance language derived from Latin albeit not dissimilar to Catalan.

"Occitania is all well and good -- but we don't want to lose our identity," said one protester, Marie-Cecile, 22, amid a chorus of boos for regional chamber of commerce head Bernard Fourcade.

Marchers then sang Lluis Llach's L'Estaca (the stage, but figuratively meaning without freedom) - composed in 1968 to underscore Catalan opposition to then Spanish dictator General Franco.

Feelings of Catalan identity on the French side of the border traditionally run less strong than in Spain where tens of thousands of Catalans were set to protest on Sunday to demand a speeding up of their drive to break away from Madrid, which has gained momentum in recent years.

After winning a clear majority in Catalonia's regional parliament last year, secessionist parties approved a plan to achieve independence in mid-2017 but internal ideological differences have hampered progress.