As darkness falls on the old market square in Vic, 70km north of Barcelona, large, white portraits of the region’s jailed political leaders look down on passers-by. 

They glow in the lamplight, between dozens of flags for Catalan independence draped from wrought iron balconies and banners reading “Free the Political Prisoners” and “We Want Them Home”.

This is a city festooned with yellow ribbons signifying that demand, tied to railings, lampposts and tree branches.

Student Paula Arboix Dunkel, 19, said: “I agree with the independence movements because they’re fighting for our future and our rights and our free expression.”

The majority of Catalans narrowly voted for either pro-independence or pro-referendum parties in recent Spanish elections, while the new far-right Vox party surged with the call to scrap autonomous regions altogether. 

At his evening book launch at The Press Club, prize-winning Catalan journalist and author of Dress Rehearsal for an Uprising, (Assaig General d’una Revolta), Francesc-Marc Alvaro, 52, predicts an end to the political impasse with a historic coalition between PSOE (the Socialists) and the radical left Podemos – the only Spanish political party in favour of holding a referendum in Catalonia, similar to that carried out in Scotland in 2014.

The jailing of nine political leaders on October 14 for between nine and 13 years on charges of sedition for their part in holding a referendum, against Spanish law, led to a general strike, mass demonstrations and a blockade of the French border.

A video circulating on social media shows the front row of French police removing their helmets in solidarity. 

The self-proclaimed “tsunami democratic” has continued to organise impromptu protests through Instagram and mobile apps, such as attempt to block Barcelona’s Sants railway station on 16 November.

“No-one knows who’s organising – you wake up and there’s a call to the border. It all happens very fast. The methods are intelligent but it’s a little dark because we don’t know who’s behind it,” says local reporter Meritxell Vilamala, 27. 

As the chill descends on the city from the snow-dusted hills beyond, 35-year-old agronomist Mireia Pastor, visiting the Placa Major, says the demonstrations are not just about independence, but civil rights.

“Yes, for me they are political prisoners. It’s not a fair punishment. That’s why we try to be in the street, to make noise. Me, my parents, my kids – all three generations.”

Inside the cream-coloured modern buildings of the University of Vic, classes are in action, but typed sheets of A4 are still sellotaped to doors and windows with the call to mobilise – “SORTIM AL CARRER” (‘To the streets!’)

Dunkel and her fellow advertising and PR classmate fear the rise of the right: “Because they want to repress us; it’s very bad for us.” Neil Fernandez Martin, 22, says he’s against vandalism, but supports blocking the French border.

He said: “It’s a way to protest against the Spanish government because they won’t let us vote. I’m sorry for the problems it causes but it’s the only way to make the rest of the world listen to us.”

Dining in La Taverna del Gruixut down one of the city’s myriad stone alleyways, managing director of Vic-based El 9 Nou (The New Nine) media group, Victor Palomar, says something has to break the deadlock: “Nobody’s moving – we need a third actor to mediate, so it’s necessary to internationalise the conflict. I think it’s very important to do this.”

Opposite El 9 Nou’s offices, local people flock to Mass at the Cathedral where the golden casket of remains of St Bernadette, “Our Lady of Lourdes”, is carried aloft through the nave in a candlelit, incense-wafted procession on its national tour.

The 11th-century bell tower is the tallest in Catalonia and has overseen some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

But the new activists have been restrained, according to Vilamala: “Some media say they were violent – I don’t think so. They are always peaceful. They never even drop litter.”

Although 75 per cent of his audience are pro-independence, Mr Palomar tries to avoid editorial bias: “We have to be neutral and explain to people what’s happening and not be in favour or against.”

He believes that people in Catalonia will not give up their fight for independence, whatever happens.

But a change of tactics could be on the horizon for the main pro-independence ERC party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, (The Republican Left), who might hold the best cards, much like the DUP, in a left bloc voting pact.

Mr Alvaro says: “My hypothesis is that the ERC will adopt a role similar to that of the Scottish National Party. That is, a long-term independence strategy, looking for the cracks in Madrid to try to carry out a referendum.”

He thinks the furore over the prisoners will die down as courts start to allow temporary releases. 

As the temperature in Vic dips to freezing, two council workers string up white Christmas lights on the trees branches on the main street, but the yellow ribbons are still visible underneath.

- Catherine Adams is senior lecturer in journalism at Nottingham Trent University.