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Carles Puigdemont: The man who wants to break up Spain

Catalonia’s sacked President Carles Puigdemont has spearheaded the region’s peaceful drive for independence from Spain.

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

But his zeal for secession has put him on a collision course with Madrid. It outlawed the independence referendum held in Catalonia on 1 October.

After imposing direct rule, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called a snap Catalan election. But the result on 21 December was bad news for Madrid. The separatists won a slim majority, even though a pro-unity party came top.

  • Madrid’s enforcer for Catalonia

    “It is time for the political recipe, which Rajoy failed at,” Mr Puigdemont said, calling again for negotiations with the Spanish leader. “He has only demonstrated a greater mobilisation of Catalans, greater votes.”

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

    “Mr 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.”

    But 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.”

    • Reality Check: Would Catalonia be a viable country?

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

      “It’s unfortunate because it was a trap. There’s no doubt it looks bad for the Spanish government.”

      New platform

      Mr Puigdemont talks the language of independence in a way his more cautious predecessor, Artur Mas, did not during the dry-run referendum of 2014, which was also banned by Madrid.

      Speaking to the BBC after the 1 October referendum, Mr Puigdemont said: “I think we’ve won the right to be heard, but what I find harder to understand is this indifference – or absolute lack of interest – in understanding what is happening here. They’ve never wanted to listen to us.

      “How can we explain to the world that Europe is a paradise of democracy if we hit old women and people who’ve done nothing wrong? This is not acceptable. We haven’t seen such a disproportionate and brutal use of force since the death of the dictator Franco.”

      He calls for mediation – something the Spanish government says is unacceptable.

      A Madrid source dismissed the idea, telling the BBC it would be “mediation between the Spanish government and part of the Spanish state”.

      From Brussels, Mr Puigdemont has watched as his Catalan allies back home have been placed in Spanish custody to face trial.

      He has been mocked by some for not going to Madrid along with them and placing himself in the hands of Spanish justice.

      One cartoon apparently being circulated on the Whatsapp messaging app shows him, with his distinctive mop of hair and glasses, hiding out in a box of Belgian chocolates.

      Skip Twitter post by @p_hansens

      Unsigned cartoon circulating on whatsApp : Where is #Puigdemont ? #Brussels #Catalonia pic.twitter.com/bzHE1eP0Bv

      — Pascal Hansens (@p_hansens) November 3, 2017


      End of Twitter post by @p_hansens

      But he has only followed the path taken by earlier Catalan leaders like Josep Tarradellas and Lluís Companys, seeking refuge abroad from a hostile Spanish state.

      Mr Puigdemont told Belgian TV he was not hiding from “real justice” but from the “clearly politicised” Spanish legal system.

      While European arrest warrants against him and his four colleagues were later withdrawn by a Spanish judge, he still faces possible charges of rebellion and sedition if he returns.

      Just by being in Brussels, the man from Girona is keeping the cause he holds so dear, Catalan independence, squarely on the doorstep of the European Union.

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