Carles Puigdemont: The man who wants to break up Spain

 In U.S.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont gives a press conference in Barcelona, on October 2, 2017.Image copyright
AFP/Getty Images

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Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont says the region has won the right to break away from Spain

The drive for independence that delivered the banned 1 October referendum did not begin under his leadership. But such is his zeal for secession, that Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont is prepared to risk its existing autonomy to achieve it.

In defiance of the law and Spain’s constitution, he has pushed forward in the hope of international recognition.

It may well be a doomed journey in the eyes of Spain’s allies in Brussels and Washington – but the meek-looking village baker’s son from Girona is undaunted.

Spanish lessons

Born in Amer in 1962, he grew up under the dictatorship of Gen Francisco Franco and was taught in Spanish at a church-run boarding school, but spoke Catalan at home like others of his generation.

Joan Matamala, a few years his senior at the school, remembers the boy everyone got on with, even the older pupils.

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Bookseller Joan Matamala went to school with Carles Puigdemont

Mr Matamala runs a bookshop, Les Voltes, that has been promoting Catalan language and culture in Girona for 50 years. The young Puigdemont did not come over as a natural leader at the time but he was someone you did not forget, he says.

As a young man, Puigdemont had a passion for his native tongue, going on to study Catalan philology at the local university and polishing colleagues’ copy when he first found work in the city’s newspapers.

Miquel Riera worked with him at the fiercely pro-independence paper now known as El Punt Avui, often late into the night.

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Miquel Riera worked with Carles Puigdemont at the pro-independence newspaper now known as El Punt Avui

“Right from the start he was very interested in new technology and the internet,” says Mr Riera. This may have fed Puigdemont’s awareness of social media, which was crucial in promoting the referendum campaign.

“He’s a man who makes friends easily,” says Mr Riera, whose 25-year-old son, he says, was bruised on the chest by a police rifle butt at a polling station on Sunday.

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Media captionThe BBC’s Tom Burridge on how the crisis in Spain is likely to unfold

Mr Puigdemont served as mayor of Girona from 2011 until 2016 when he was elected regional president of Catalonia.

There is no denying his star appeal among his supporters, who clamour to take selfies with him at rallies.

His popularity cuts across class, coming as he does from comparatively modest origins, outside the Catalan elite which dominated the local centre-right alliance, Convergence and Union (now known as the Catalan European Democratic Party), for years.

“Puigdemont has been absolutely key to bringing Catalonia to where we are now,” says Montse Daban, international chairperson of the Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots pro-independence movement.

“He’s been an absolute and positive surprise for Catalan citizens, who were already supporting the independence process and saw with dismay that it was facing several burdens.”

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The Catalan protests lead Catalan papers (above) but not Spanish ones

But his actions have brought him into conflict with Spanish law. And in the eyes of Spain’s government, the Catalan leader has ruthlessly created a crisis, burning all the bridges in order to make a unilateral declaration of independence.

“Democracy is not about voting – there are referenda in dictatorships too,” a Madrid government source told the BBC. “Only when you vote with guarantees according to the law is it a democracy.”

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The images of violence at the polling stations were “150% part of Puigdemont’s plan”, the source said.

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