Carles Puigdemont Catalonia's separatist leader: dyed-in-the-wool partisan of independence

The 54-year-old former journalist with the shaggy brown mop has become the face of the Catalan independence movement...

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Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is a life-long supporter of his region's independence play

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is a life-long supporter of his region's independence

(AFP/File)
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Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's separatist leader, has dreamed since childhood of independence from Spain but now faces a stark choice to determine the future of a region he said he's willing to go to jail for.

On Monday he is confronted with a deadline imposed by Madrid to decide whether or not to push ahead with secession, risking both his own personal liberty and the autonomy of his region of 7.5 million people.

The 54-year-old former journalist with the shaggy brown mop has become the face of the Catalan independence movement, liked and disliked.

"Puigdemont to jail," defenders of Spanish unity shout regularly.

Uncertainty over his secession push has prompted hundreds of companies to flee the region since October 1, when he raised the stakes by holding a banned independence referendum.

Many of his supporters fear his arrest if he ploughs ahead with independence in defiance of Madrid -- something he says he's prepared for.

So where does the determination of this married father of two girls come from?

Independence 'in his blood'

In a biography published in 2016, Carles Porta, a journalist and friend of Puigdemont, describes him as an "honest and resilient" man, a dyed-in-the-wool partisan of independence.

"He has this quality (or this flaw): he's stubborn," Porta writes.

But a high-ranking critic who knows him but refused to be identified in order to speak freely, said he "does not have much preparation... to take on this big challenge", even though he has the independence of Catalonia "in his blood, as a unique driving force".

Puigdemont's destiny changed in January 2016 when he was selected to lead a coalition of separatist parties which had won a majority of regional parliament seats, with a mandate to pursue independence.

Mayor of the city of Girona since 2001 and a lawmaker in the regional parliament, Puigdemont replaced Artur Mas as the Catalan president, becoming the Spanish government's public enemy number one.

He does though share one thing in common with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy: both suffered serious car accidents when they were younger.

Rajoy has his scars hidden under his beard, Puigdemont on his forehead, under his fringe.

'Flair for showmanship'

Puigdemont was born in Amer, a small mountain village of 2,200 people, on December 29, 1962, the second of eight siblings.

The son and grandson of bakers, he was just nine when he was sent to boarding school and "learnt to be a fighter", Porta says.

He was 13 when Spain's dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975.

Hugely attached to the Catalan language and passionate about history, the teenager would forever remember Franco's severe repression of the region.

In 1980, he joined Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya, the conservative and nationalist party which became the Catalan European Democratic Party in 2016.

Hired in 1982 by the nationalist newspaper El Punt Avui, he rose up through the ranks and became editor, combining journalism with activism.

At the time, pro-independence Catalans were still a minority.

In the summer of 1991, he travelled to the Republic of Slovenia, which had just declared independence from Yugoslavia after a banned referendum, followed by a brief armed conflict.

In the following years, he sought to widen support for independence, always by peaceful means, inspired by India's icon, Mahatma Gandhi.

At ease with social media, he also speaks French, English and Romanian -- his wife Marcela Topor comes from Romania.

He founded a Catalan news agency and an English-language newspaper about the region, and headed up the Association of Municipalities for Independence, which brings together local entities to promote the right to self-determination.

"He has a great flair for showmanship and knows how to use the media," political analyst Anton Losada said.

Since 2012, Catalonia has been the scene of mass rallies asking for an independence referendum, but the region itself remains deeply divided over splitting from Spain.

For political analyst Joan Botella, "Puigdemont believes he has been called by destiny to take Catalans to the promised land, and his entourage is very unpredictable."

But "he doesn't at all appear to be a demented zealot as described by Madrid".

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