BARCELONA’S municipal police estimated that about 750,000 Catalans turned out for Saturday night’s pro-independence demonstration, but others said there was no way it could have been any less than a million.

The throng of protestors went on and on and on for about 15 blocks. Many of those there held the estelada, the Catalan flag, while others held banners and placards demanding the release of pro-independence politicians, jailed after Madrid imposed direct rule last month.

Mariano Rajoy, the belligerent Spanish Prime Minister, was in Catalonia yesterday morning, his first visit since he sacked the regional government, suspended the parliament and organised fresh elections for next month.

He avoided confrontation, meeting only a small group of supporters in the ballroom of a hotel. There he insisted turnout for the December vote needed to be high, to “reclaim Catalonia from the havoc of separatism”.

The country has been in chaos since October 1 when, on a turnout of 43 per cent, 92 per cent of voters in the region backed independence.

The Spanish courts declared the poll illegal.

When the Catalan Government then unilaterally declared independence, Rajoy and his government moved to take control.

Rajoy said: “We must reclaim Catalonia from the havoc of separatism ... with democracy, we want to reclaim Catalonia for everyone.”

He added: “It’s urgent to return a sense of normality to Catalonia and do so as soon as possible to lower the social and economic tensions.”

Rajoy defended his decision to impose direct rule, saying, “exceptional measures can only be taken when there is no other option, and we adopted them to stop the increasing attacks to peaceful coexistence”.

He added: “For centuries, centuries, Catalonia and Spain have built a country that is multi-cultural and diverse, and the separatists won’t be allowed to break the ties that bind us.”

Polls show a tight race between pro-independence parties and those who want Catalonia to remain a part of Spain.

Although they opposed the calling of the snap election, both PDeCAT of deposed leader Carles Puigdemont and the ERC have said they will participate. However, the two pro-independence parties failed to agree to run on a united ticket.

According to a poll for El Pais, some 54 percent of Spaniards think Rajoy has handled the crisis well, but only 28 percent of Catalans share this view.

Last Wednesday, a general strike called by a pro-independence union caused travel chaos, blocking 60 roads and train lines including Spain’s main highway link to France and the rest of Europe.

Eight members of the axed Catalan cabinet have been detained on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.

A further six sacked officials were granted bail this week on similar charges by Spain’s supreme court.

Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, awaiting a hearing on possible extradition back to Spain after Madrid issued an EU-wide warrant.

He and four former ministers are wanted on charges of sedition. They say they fled to Brussels because they do not believe the Spanish courts will not give them a fair trial.