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Catalan President Carles Puigdemont presides over a cabinet meeting at Generalitat Palace in Barcelona, Spain, October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

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PARIS (Reuters) - French Catalans have a villa with a swimming pool and other safe houses ready in the event that Carles Puigdemont and other leaders of Spain's Catalonia region have to seek refuge from Madrid.

While the idea of Catalan leaders fleeing Spain and setting up an underground network abroad still appears remote, French backers of Catalan independence are taking no chances. They say they have 52 houses and flats lined up near the Spanish border.

"It's all ready. We have the logistics to be able to house about 200 people for now, and more if needed," said Robert Casanovas, an activist and head of the Committee for the self-determination of North Catalonia -- the French Catalan area.

"Our aim is to be ready if there are arrest warrants issued against members of the Catalan government, and in particular its president," he said in a phone interview.

The Spanish government is threatening to impose direct rule on Catalonia, a region with its own language and culture, which held a referendum on independence on Oct. 1 that Spanish courts declared illegal.

Thousands of Catalan speakers live across the border in France, mainly in the eastern Pyrenees region along the Mediterranean Coast, territory ceded to France by Spain in the 17th Century. Top Catalan officials sought refuge in France in the late 1930s from Spain's military dictator Francisco Franco.

Catalan leader Puigdemont and his government have called for civil disobedience to defy the direct rule move. They have not publicly discussed exile.

Casanovas said his group had decided unilaterally to offer the safe-houses. He declined to say whether there had been an answer, saying it was too sensitive.

Unlike their Spanish counterparts, French Catalan activists do not seek independence for their territory but ask for more autonomy, including on tax matters.

Casanovas said his 30-strong committee leads a 300-strong French Catalan group. Around 400,000 people live in the area of France that activists call North Catalonia.

Casanovas said among the safe-houses on offer was his own home in Theza, a short drive from the Spanish border.

"It's a pretty nice house with a swimming pool, it's quite big, with a 7,000-square-metre garden, so it would work out really well," he said. "We couldn't put him in a two-bedroom... We need something worthy of a head of government."

(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Additional reporting by Julien Toyer in Madrid; Editing by Luke Baker)

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