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French officials allow rally by exiled Catalan MEP Puigdemont

French authorities said Tuesday that they would not halt a mass rally planned by former Catalonia leader Carles Puigdemont in Perpignan, just a few kilometres from the Spanish region’s capital of Barcelona.

Organisers say they expect some 70,000 supporters to attend the meeting on February 29, but French officials had not yet given their approval.

The delay prompted fears the rally could be outlawed on grounds of a threat to public order, but the government’s top regional authority said it had “decided to respect the principle of freedom of assembly.”

Hundreds of buses have been chartered to bring supporters from Catalonia across the border, and many Perpignan hotels are already fully booked for the event.

Puigdemont and other officials fled Spain in October 2017 after his regional government staged a secession referendum that was banned by Madrid.

He has since been living in Belgium, and in May was elected to the European Parliament, granting him diplomatic immunity against a European arrest warrant issued by Spain.

“I will feel at home, walking on the lands of northern Catalonia,” Puigdemont said when announcing the Perpignan meeting last month.

He will be joined by other Catalan officials, including the current Catalan president Quim Torra, a member of Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxC) party.

Torra has said the wealthy northeastern region will hold early elections this year amid disputes between its two governing parties, both staunchly pro-independence.