Partying and politics mix at launch of Pamplona’s Sanfermines 2017

As thousands of revelers look on, local officials unfurl the Basque flag and hang it outside City Hall

The Basque flag (left) flys outside Pamplona City Hall on Thursday.
The Basque flag (left) flys outside Pamplona City Hall on Thursday.Javier Lizón (EFE)
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The ‘chupinazo’ at San Fermín 2017

Against a backdrop of hot weather, cloudy skies and political controversy, Pamplona inaugurated its world-famous Sanfermines on Thursday at noon.

Following tradition, a rocket was launched from a balcony at the seat of local government – an event known as the Chupinazo – setting off nine days of uninterrupted partying that will set the city back €1.3 million, a 3% increase from last year’s budget.

The official San Fermín 2017 program lists around 425 events between now and July 14, ranging from concerts to puppet theater, sports activities, dance shows, parades, fireworks displays, bullfights and religious events.

Thousands jammed the square outside Pamplona City Hall at noon.
Thousands jammed the square outside Pamplona City Hall at noon.ANDER GILLENEA (AFP)

But the street celebrations – of which the morning bull runs are the best-known event – are just one part of the story. Underlying the Navarrese capital’s famous festival is a recurring political issue that becomes particularly visible at this time of the year.

Will it be there?

On Thursday morning, as the square in front of City Hall filled up with thousands of people, all eyes were trained on the main balcony to see whether the ikurriña – the official flag of the neighboring Basque Country – would fly among the other ensigns.

Although Navarre is not formally part of the Basque Country – it is a separate region in its own right – there are shared historical ties that pro-independence groups like to underscore.

Locals knew that in March of this year, the regional parliament had struck down a law forbidding the ikurriña from being hung alongside the official flag of Navarre. The Spanish government, in turn, had warned that the Basque flag would be illegal.

And the local government, whose mayor belongs to the nationalist group EH Bildu, had issued a report stating that existing regulations neither oblige nor forbid the city from flying the Basque flag. EH Bildu, like other leftist, pro-independence groups in the region, supports the idea of a wider Basque nation that goes beyond the official Basque provinces of Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Álava, and which encompasses Navarre as well as parts of southern France.

A clear view of the ikurriña during the Chupinazo on Thursday at noon.
A clear view of the ikurriña during the Chupinazo on Thursday at noon.Pablo Blazquez Dominguez (Getty Images)

As revelers watched, city employees unfurled an ikurriña from the balcony just minutes before the rocket launch. Flying next to it were the flags of Pamplona, Navarre, Spain and the European Union.

Spanish government authorities immediately filed an official administrative complaint against the move. This is not the first time that the Basque flag has sneaked in among the others – it happened in 2015 as well. Local authorities claimed at the time that it was done as a courtesy to three Basque parliament members from EH Bildu who had been asked to attend the Chupinazo as official guests.

Non-stop action

The partying and the politics also leaves some room for religion. The main event on Thursday, outside the Chupinazo itself, is the Marcha a Vísperas, a concert scheduled for 8pm inside the Church of San Lorenzo, where the choir of the Cathedral Music Chapel and the Navarre Symphony Orchestra will perform a religious piece by Mariano García and Fernando Remach.

Around 3,500 police officers will be patrolling the streets to keep the crowds under control. The population of Pamplona is expected to swell from 200,000 to around one million during the nine-day festival.

The morning bull runs, or encierros, are a major element of the Sanfermines, and as such, there will be 10 medical stands manned by 70 health professionals along the 850-meter route that the bulls will take each morning. A fleet of 16 ambulances will be dispatched to the area.

Figures released by local authorities show that there were 16,448 runners last year, or 181 fewer than in 2015.

English version by Susana Urra.

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