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Puigdemont: the dashed dreams of an independent Catalonia

© AFP/File | Close friends of Carles Puigdemont say the ousted Catalan leader has been a convinced separatist since his youth

BARCELONA (AFP) - 

He fled Spain in October without having accomplished his dream of converting Catalonia into an independent republic.

But after more than eight months in self-exile, wanted by Spain, Carles Puigdemont could be coming home... to prison.

A German court on Thursday gave the green light for his extradition -- but only for misuse of public funds and not the more serious offence of rebellion, as wanted by Spain's Supreme Court.

A bittersweet decision for the 55-year-old former journalist who has dreamt of independence since his youth, long before the separatist movement lept onto the political fore in the wealthy northeastern region.

"We will fight to the end, and we will win," he tweeted on Thursday.

Puigdemont became president of Catalonia in January 2016 after an election which saw separatists win a majority in the regional parliament for the first time.

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

The Catalan government claimed that 92 percent of voters backed independence in the referendum, which saw a 43 percent turnout, with Puigdemont declaring his region had "won the right to an independent state".

Then at the end of October, he fled Spain after being deposed by Madrid and his region put under direct rule over a failed declaration of independence.

- Pro-independence family -

A virtual unknown when he was elected president of the Spanish region of 7.5 million people, Puigdemont, who combs his hair in a shaggy Beatles-style mop, became 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".

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.

- Activism and journalism -

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.

Puigdemont 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.

In his months abroad since the secession bid, he was determined to keep a high profile.

He was the separatists' candidate of choice to return as Catalan president after December regional elections saw pro-independence parties win again.

But the courts decided otherwise, judging he could not rule the region from abroad.

So in May he stepped aside in favour of Quim Torra, an editor who is also a dyed-in-the-wool partisan of independence.

But Torra, seen as a mere puppet of Puigdemont, has so far remained in his shadow.

© 2018 AFP