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MWC inadvertently sparks Catalan independence protest

King Felipe VI of Spain, who's helping kick off Mobile World Congress, visits Barcelona for the first time since last year's independence referendum. Not everyone is happy to see him.

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Barcelona residents responded differently to the arrival of King Felipe VI of Spain, who's attending a World Mobile Congress kickoff event. Here, they're proudly displaying the Spanish flag.

Katie Collins/CNET

Every year at the world's largest mobile industry trade show, Samsung sets up a booth in Plaça Catalunya -- the heart of Barcelona -- to showcase its latest innovations to the public. People queue up to see what the South Korean phone vendor has to show off. In 2017 it was a VR roller coaster. This year it's a Samsung Pay-themed fun fair.

But as the sun set Sunday on the eve of the Mobile World Congress trade show, and Samsung itself was busy unveiling the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus across town, the locals weren't paying attention to the company or its booth. Barcelona residents were turning out in droves -- some to protest the arrival of the King Felipe VI of Spain in the city, others to support it.

The king was in town on Sunday for an event kicking off MWC 2018, a four-day conference where wireless carriers, phone makers and other wireless industry executives converge for dealmaking and hobnobbing. He often pays a visit to the show, but his presence in the city today is especially remarkable because it's the first time he has visited Barcelona since the Catalan independence referendum held in October 2017.

The referendum was an opportunity for residents of the Spanish region of Catalonia to say whether they wanted it to be a separate country from Spain. Catalonians voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, but the Constitutional Court of Spain declared the vote void, saying it was unconstitutional. King Felipe told Spanish television that the referendum was "illegal."

Many Catalonians are not happy with the king's presence in the city. Both the mayor of Barcelona and the president of the Catalan Parliament have refused to attend the opening dinner with Felipe.

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The Catalonia flags flies in Plaça Catalunya

Katie Collins/CNET

Mayor Ada Colau Ballano issued a statement via her Facebook page explaining why she would not be attending the event. She criticized the king for cracking down on freedom of speech and not showing empathy for citizens affected by post-referendum violence.

"Barcelona is ready for a new edition of the MWC that promises to be a success," she said. "We are a city open to the world, cosmopolitan, proud of its diversity and innovative. We are also a city committed to freedom of expression, peace and human rights, and we therefore call for respect."

Carles Puigdemont, who served as president of Catalonia until he was forced into exile in Brussels in late October following the referendum, urged people to support the protest on Sunday and said on Twitter that King Felipe would be welcome in Barcelona when he apologized for the role in voiding the referendum. He attached the official MWC hashtag to his tweet.

The crowds in Plaça Catalunya on Sunday evening were divided down the middle. Occupying the side of the square near the Samsung booth, tents propping up "democracia" banners were set up behind a barrier and the Catalan flag flew high. As people emerged from the subway station on the other side of the square, they pulled Spanish flags from their pockets and draped them around their shoulders.

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Samsung's booth played second fiddle to politics.

Katie Collins/CNET

At 9 p.m. local time, people banged on pots and beeped their car horns in protest to the king's presence.

A spokeswoman for the GSMA, which runs MWC, said the safety of show participants was paramount. "We are working closely with local authorities in reviewing and refining the comprehensive security plans we have in place to address any possible security threats that may affect Mobile World Congress," she said.

In the morning, the show will go on. MWC banners hang from Barcelona's lamp posts, while flags hang from the balconies of the city's apartment buildings, each indicating its occupier's allegiance. In a week, the MWC banners will be gone, but the flags will remain -- for many in Barcelona, this fight is far from over.

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