Most - but not all - Spaniards enjoy freer life styles

Armed with pitchforks, Don Sabino's -parishioners angrily marched down to the lovely Galician beach of Barona and forced the nude sunbathers to get dressed. The war between the sunbathers and the locals, backed by their priest, has raged all summer.

Still more surprising has been the Socialist government's move to de-penalize the possession of drugs.

Drugs, nudity . . . in Spain?

The international press leapt to their pens to describe the ''dramatic changes'' that had swept Spain since the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez came to power 10 months ago.

True, the coming of Gonzalez, the engaging, new-style prime minister with his bright, young team, has certainly engendered a feeling of optimism and excitement here. But most Spaniards would not be delighted to see this trivialized into a matter of bathing suits and folklore. Nor have the country's deeper changes come instantly.

All the Socialists' planned reforms - from the vast overhaul of the penal system to the legalizing of abortion - come as no real surprise to a country that has been quietly growing up for years.

''The real social change came in the '60s with the tourist boom, modern industry, foreign investment, multinationals, workers emigrating to the rest of Europe,'' says Alberto Moncada, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Madrid.

New mores and life styles imposed themselves despite resistance by the Roman Catholic Church and right-wing elements. The death of General Franco in 1975 signaled sudden political freedom. Almost overnight, people started using the familiar ''tu'' form in the streets. Pornography hit the kiosks.

The first democratic elections in 1977 and later the Constitution paved the way for more liberalization. The state religion was abolished, a first step to loosening the grip of the Catholic Church. It was also under former centrist Premier Adolfo Suarez that divorce was introduced and parental custody made equal for both parents. The ''public danger'' law controlling some aspects of peoples' behaviour was partially revoked, allowing marginal and less conventional people to breathe more easily.

Says Francisco Gor, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, ''The Socialists are simply continuing along the same path of tolerance that was opened up.''

That path has not been easy, and the Socialists have had to tread cautiously not to antagonize the old guard and military.

On the social front, Spanish society reflects a bewildering mixture of old-fashioned habits and liberalism. Most young people live at home until they marry. A pop song with ''dirty words'' by the punk group ''Las Vulpes'' causes a national uproar. Separation is still more widespread than divorce.

The Socialists have had to contend with both sides. Their most spectacular measure - certainly to foreign eyes - was legalizing the possession of drugs in July.

Now the police are worried about rapidly growing drug use. Anti-drug inspector Fernando Martinez Cos says: ''With terrorism and unemployment, this is the worst plague that is threatening the country. Fifteen years ago, drugs used to pass through Spain on their way to the rest of Europe. Now a good part are staying here.''

Although the drug reform hardly provoked a concerted reaction, the Socialists have had to face tough opposition on the abortion issue from the traditional, well-off middle-class families. The proposed reform, to be debated in parliament at the end of September, would allow ''therapeutic'' abortion in cases when the mother's life was in danger, when the fetus was malformed, or in cases of rape.

Outraged opponents, backed by the church, have launched an all-out crusade against abortion. On the other side, disappointed feminists and left-wingers attack the reform for being so minimal. In the meantime, Spanish courts keep handing down harsh sentences to women who undergo or perform abortions.

Today, also, militants for one cause or another no longer hesitate to speak out against the Roman Catholic Church in newspapers or on television. Liberalization seems to have unleashed the strong anticlerical undercurrent that has long pervaded Spanish society.

The church has found its power challenged most notably in the vital field of education. Forty percent of Spanish schools are private, mainly church-run. The Socialists intend to make the system more fair by closely controlling state subsidies to such schools as well as setting up special school boards.

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