Catalonia's leader, a dyed-in-the-wool partisan of independence

Barcelona (AFP) –


Carles Puigdemont, the ousted leader of Catalonia who on Thursday stepped back from efforts to reappoint him, has been a convinced secessionist since his youth, long before the issue moved to the centre of Catalan and Spanish politics.

The 54-year-old former journalist became president of Catalonia in January 2016, after an election in which separatists won a majority in the regional parliament for the first time.

Less than two years later, on October 1, 2017, Puigdemont staged an independence referendum even though the courts had ruled it unconstitutional.

The Catalan government claimed that 90 percent of voters backed independence in the referendum, with Puigdemont declaring that his region had "won the right to an independent state".

A virtual unknown when he became president of the northeastern Spanish region of 7.5 million people, Puigdemont, who combs his hair in a shaggy Beatles-style mop, become the main enemy of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government.

In Amer, the small mountainous village of 2,200 people where he grew up, and in Girona, where Puigdemont served as mayor from 2011 to 2016, he is recalled as a convinced separatist.

"In Catalonia many people became separatists in an allergic reaction to Madrid's policies. Not him, he always had these convictions," said Puigdemont's friend Antoni Puigverd, a poet and journalist.

Puigdemont has never hidden his separatist tendencies, not even when he joined his predecessor Artur Mas's CDC party in 1980 at a time when it merely wanted to negotiate greater autonomy for Catalonia -- far from the idea of breaking away from Spain.

His friend Salvador Clara, a leftwing secessionist councillor in Amer, added that Puigdemont had defended the independence of Catalonia "since he can remember".

- Pro-independence family -

In July 2015 Puigdemont became president of the Association of Municipalities for Independence, which brings together local entities to promote the right to self-determination.

For 17 years he worked for Catalonia's nationalist daily El Punt, which now publishes under the name El Punt Avui after merging with another paper. He later created a regional news agency and an English-language newspaper about his region.

"He always combined his political activism with journalism," said Ramon Iglesias, a journalist with news radio Cadena Ser in Girona.

In 1991, while working at a local newspaper in Girona, Puigdemont launched a campaign to change the spelling of the name of the city from the Spanish version, Gerona, to Girona, the Catalan spelling, Iglesias recalled.

Born on December 29, 1962, into a family of bakers, Puigdemont was the second of eight siblings.

"We're a pro-independence family through and through," his sister Anna, who runs the family bakery in Amer, told AFP.

- 'Enormous freedom' -

Puigdemont -- currently on bail in Germany, as Madrid tries to persuade the German courts to extradite him to faces charges of rebellion over the October 1 referendum -- speaks English and French as did his predecessor Artur Mas.

He is also a Romanian speaker as his wife Marcela Topor comes from Romania, and they have two girls.

But unlike Mas, who implemented unpopular austerity measures during Spain's economic crisis, Puigdemont is more of a social democrat who was better able to seduce the far-left members of Catalonia's separatist faction who were wary of Mas.

Catalan journalist Enric Juliana said Puigdemont's long-standing separatist convictions had made him the "ideal candidate" to succeed Mas, who never managed to convince some separatists of his dedication to a cause he embraced only a few years ago.

In June 2016, when far-left separatists withdrew their support, he took a risk and called a motion of no confidence in the Catalan regional parliament, which he survived.

"He arrived where he is by chance. He did not aspire to a political career, and that has given him enormous freedom," Puigverd said.