He's been president of the Catalan parliament since January 2016, but Carles Puigdemont (pronounced “Karlas Poutch-dé-mont”) still lives in Girona (population 100,000 and nearly 100km northeast of Barcelona), the town where he was mayor for five years (2011-2016). It's a choice perhaps made because he readily admits never having aspired to the presidency.
"It happened at the last minute. It was accidental, through a backdoor,” Puigdemont says.
He's the successor to Artur Mas who was pushed out by the far left after Mas was accused of implementing a policy of austerity.
When he ascended to the presidency, Puigdemont was an obscure figure, even within Catalonia. Many Catalans were just getting their first look at Puigdement, a polished man with a Beatles haircut, worn to cover up a scar from a serious car accident.
Today, Puigdemont – who defied the Spanish government to organise an independence referendum formally banned by the Spanish judiciary – represents, for millions of Catalans, the dream of independence. Moreover, it's a reality that now appears within arms' reach.
“He had already taken up the nationalist cause in the eighties”
In less than two years, Puigdemont, 54, has managed to get the question of self-determination back on the table.
“He is probably one of the people most convinced by the cause [...] that I’ve met in my life”, says Carles Porta, journalist and author of Puigdemont’s biography “L’amic président”.
Porta is Puigdemont’s old friend and calls him by his nickname “Pugi”. Pugi grew up in the small village of Amer, population 2,200, located not far from Girona. He came from a long line of bakers, who were all strong supporters of the nationalist cause.
For his part, Pugi “had already taken up the nationalist cause in the eighties”.
Though trained as a philologist, Puidgement made a life-changing decision to switch to journalism following a serious car accident in 1983. He began as a copy editor at El Punt Avui, then rose to editor then editor-in-chief. Those in the newsroom remember his separatist leanings.
“When we played pinball and he lost the ball, he’d call the machine a ‘Spanish whore’,” one of his former colleagues remembered in a special edition of the newspaper.
From “Gerona” to “Girona”
In 1991, the journalist turned activist launched a campaign to change the name of the city from Gerona (in Spanish) to Girona (in Catalan). Then, he co-founded the JNC, a youth group affiliated to the nationalist party of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (which was refounded as the Catalan European Democratic Party, or PDECAT in 2016).
After a stint as director of the Agència Catalana de Notícies (ACN or the Catalan News Agency) and the journal Catalonia Today, the journalist decided to dedicate himself to politics.
His career took off during municipal elections in 2011 when he was elected mayor in Girona, ousting the Socialists, who had held power in the town for the past 32 years. Puigdemont’s own team, as well as his adversaries, remember him as “demanding” and “strict” but also composed.
Puigdemont and his iron resolve may have come as a surprise to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Just a few months after being elected to head up the Catalan parliament, he went to Madrid to meet with Rajoy. After a cordial conversation, Rajoy gifted Puigdemont with a copy of Don Quixote, in which the famous knight goes to Barcelona.
The two men haven’t met since, except when coming together to honour those killed during the attacks in Barcelona last August.
Polyglot and good communicator
Instead of talking with Madrid, Puigdemont prefers to communicate with Catalan media. Keenly aware that the question of independence is a divisive one among Catalans, Puigdemont has shifted the debate towards the right for self determination, a theme more generally supported among the Catalan population, according to polls.
The Catalan president has multiple tools in his communication arsenal. A polyglot – who speaks Catalan, Spanish, French and also Romanian, which he learned from his wife, Romanian journalist Marcela Topor, with whom he has two daughters – Puigdemont was also an early adopter of social media. By dramatically increasing the interviews he gives to foreign press, Puigdemont has managed to move the debate about Catalan autonomy to the national stage.
But opinion is far from uniform within the Catalan parliament and Puigdemont has had to forge a tenuous coalition of separatists (Junts pel Si), made up of a range of parties that extend from the far left to the centre-right, and vary widely on their positions on economic and social issues.
Politicians describe him as a savvy strategist.
“He’s a person who listens a lot then decides with total and absolute liberty,” says his friend and biographer Porta.
Puigdemont doesn’t worry too much about economic or social issues, says José Antich, director of El Nacional, a Catalan online newspaper.
“His priority is independence, independence, independence,” he adds.
For the time being, it’s unclear if Puigdemont will achieve his ends or not. He hasn’t said much about what form a potential Catalan Republic would take. But he knows one thing for sure if a new republic is declared, he’ll leave Barcelona – and probably politics – in his quest for the “sense of normalcy” he claims to have lost.
This story has been translated from the original in French.