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Carles Puigdemont, the other winner of Pedro Sánchez’s return to power

Shamed by some, a figure of Catalan independence for others, MEP Carles Puigdemont had disappeared from Spanish political life since 2017.

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Carles Puigdemont, the other winner of Pedro Sánchez’s return to power

Shamed by some, a figure of Catalan independence for others, MEP Carles Puigdemont had disappeared from Spanish political life since 2017. At least in appearance. From Brussels, the city where he found refuge six years ago, Carles Puigdemont and the seven deputies of his party, Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia, Editor's note), hold the key to the majority that the socialist prime minister needs Pedro Sánchez to stay in power.

This renewal will be debated in the Spanish parliament on Wednesday and Thursday, and its outcome will determine the fate of the two men now inextricably linked, after the signing of a very controversial agreement last week between their two parties. To gain the majority that he had failed to obtain against the conservative party during the legislative elections last May, Pedro Sánchez promised the Catalan separatists an amnesty for hundreds of their leaders involved in the attempted secession of Catalonia in 2017, as well as the return to Spain of Carles Puigdemont.

At the origin of one of the most acute Spanish crises, the events of 2017 had projected Carles Puigdemont to the forefront of the political scene. After five years at the head of the town hall of Girona, a city of 100,000 inhabitants in the north-east of Spain, he was elected president of the generality of Catalonia in January 2016, before announcing barely a year and a half later the organization of a referendum for the independence of the autonomous community.

Then aged 53 and unknown to the general public, he nevertheless warned, upon arriving at the head of the regional institution: “this is not the time for cowards, for cowards, nor for those whose legs are failing”. Deemed illegal by the Spanish courts, the referendum took place on October 1 of the same year: according to the separatists, the “yes” won by 90%. On October 10, they proclaimed the independence of Catalonia, which would not be recognized.

Police violence, strikes, massive demonstrations... Spain is falling into chaos. When the country's sovereign calls to restore order, Carles Puigdemont appears on television, his usual thick bangs on his forehead, supposed to hide the after-effects of a youthful accident. Standing alongside a Catalan flag, he accuses the sovereign of not taking into account the aspirations of his population.

Before the end of the month, conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved the government of Catalonia. But on November 2, when eight members of the Catalan government were arrested, the main person concerned was missing: Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium, where he settled in Waterloo, in the South.

The exile will be the target of successive arrest warrants for various charges, from rebellion to embezzlement to sedition. He remains today pursued by the Spanish courts for disobedience and aggravated embezzlement. However, Puigdemont escaped any arrest attempt.

Arrested for the first time in Germany in 2018, he was finally released despite extradition requests in Spain. Three years later, back in Italy: passing through Sardinia, where he was going to a cultural festival, he spent one night in September 2021 in prison.

It is also thanks to parliamentary immunity, obtained when he was elected member of the European Parliament in 2019, that the Catalan escapes justice. But this immunity does not seem eternal: lifted in March 2021 by his colleagues, the sixty-year-old tried several times to challenge this decision, without success.

Nothing seemed to predestine Carles Puidgemont to pull the strings of Spanish politics from the European capital. Raised between “turron” and “capricis”, sweet specialties of the family pastry in the town of Amer, near the city of Girona where he became municipal councilor then mayor in 2011, Carles Puigdemont undertook studies in Catalan philology before to become a journalist. Having appeared in various local press titles, the young man began to campaign for the independence of the autonomous community.

Having since become a key figure in this cause, he had not welcomed Pedro Sánchez's attempts at rapprochement with his party, despite the pardon granted in 2021 to the nine separatists convicted in 2019. Regularly denouncing the desire for rapprochement of separatists more moderate, he was hostile to a new mandate for Pedro Sánchez, before changing his mind thanks to the agreement concluded last week. The proposed amnesty law, submitted to Parliament on Monday, provoked strong demonstrations in Spain and is the subject of judicial review.

Carles Puigdemont remains for many the symbol of Spanish fractures, and is aware of it. Often the target of insults or threats, he submitted a request for protection to the Spanish authorities on November 6, due to the increased risk of violence against him, according to Reuters. As pointed out by his conservative opponent, Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, the exile could now be escorted by the state's national police who have been seeking for six years to see him behind bars.

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