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Carles Puigdemont: the last Napoleon

This portrait of Carles Puigdemont was published on April 11, 2018 on Vanity Fair and we propose it again today to retrace the changes of which Vanity has been the protagonist in the last 20. Here are all the articles we are republishing.

The Renault Espace has a reserve range of around one hundred kilometres. But when the red light came on, Brussels was still missing more than 700: they needed to get petrol.

And so, one of the two men of the Mossos d’Esquadra – the Catalan police – who had been President Puigdemont’s escort, who had followed him into exile, and who were taking turns driving the car on the long journey from Stockholm to Belgium, he turned on and drove into the Hüttener Berge West petrol station.

It was here, in a German motorway service station, that the dream of the man who wanted an independent Catalonia came to a halt. It was 11.19am on Sunday 25 March when a patrol of the German motorway police, alerted by the CNI, the Spanish secret services, arrested Carles Puigdemont.

He had known for some time that they were following him and intercepting him. Months earlier, his men had found trackers on the car he used to travel to Waterloo, the town on the outskirts of Brussels where he had been living in exile since 30 October, the place where he had fled with some loyalists after the referendum of 1 October which had decreed the independence of the Spanish region, declared illegal by the central government in Madrid.

The escape is usually interpreted as an act of cowardice, but Puigdemont’s escape, for the Catalan independence activists, was something very different. Catalans love symbols, and their president is the symbol of their nation. His exile in Belgium was seen as the not at all cowardly way of keeping Catalonia alive. The house in Waterloo was renamed, not surprisingly, the House of the Catalan Republic and from there, every weekend Puigdemont gave his speeches to the nation for five months.
Proof that the independent Catalans did not feel betrayed is the fact that the president’s exile was financed by some large families of Barcelona, ​​but also through popular subscriptions that covered expenses: housing, food, travel. Even the last one, the one in Helsinki, where Puigdemont had gone to hold a conference and where he was reached by the news that the Spanish justice system had issued a European arrest warrant. It seems that he wanted to hand himself over to the Finnish police, but his lawyer advised him to return to Belgium, a country that had been his friend and where he could hope, perhaps, for better treatment. The president listened to him, the rest is history. A story – all of it – that the president would never have wanted and perhaps never even imagined when, as a boy, he helped his father Xavier make Capricci – flour and dried fruit -, the specialty of the Puigdemont pastry shop, founded in 1928 and still open on Calle san Miguel in Amer, in the province of Girona. Carles grew up in the years of the Franco regime and even then dreamed of living in a country that was no longer called Spain. An independentist pastry chef, in short – as if we were in a film by Nanni Moretti – who then finds his way into journalism – in Punt Diari, from proofreader to chief editor, and then founder of the Agència catalana de Noticies – and into politics. He becomes mayor of Girona in 2011,
the city where – until his exile in Belgium – he lived with his wife Marcela Topor, a Romanian journalist with a background in theatre, and their daughters Magali, 8, and Maria, 7. From mayor to hero in spite of himself, the the journey was relatively short.

The president is accused of rebellion and embezzlement of public funds. And while the first crime has no counterpart in German legislation, the second – public funds would be those used for the referendum not authorized by Madrid – exists, and for this reason Germany could grant Puigdemont’s extradition. Of course, the sentences for the two crimes are very different: a few years for embezzlement, thirty years for rebellion. The judge of the Land has sixty days to express his opinion, and Madrid’s diplomacy has the same number to work so that the issue is not, as Rajoy wants, dismissed as a minor crime. The only margin for action is that of interpretation: in Germany there is no crime of rebellion, but there is that of high treason. Except that high treason involves the use of violence or incitement to it.

And if there is one thing that Puigdemont and the independentists have never been, it is, precisely, violent. At least until now, because after the news of the president’s arrest the climate in Catalonia has changed and become more tense. After the first spontaneous demonstrations to ask for the release of the “political prisoner” (this is how he declares himself from the German prison of Neumünster, in Schleswig-Holstein), targeted actions began: blocking of the most important road arteries in Barcelona – the Diagonal and the Meridiana –, blockade of motorways, attempted blockade of the train station and related clashes with the police. The initiative for these actions is in the hands of the Committees for the Defense of the Republic, spontaneous groups, without structure and without leaders, and for this very reason dangerous.

Meanwhile, in prison, Puigdemont declares himself, as usual, calm. Strengthened by the resolution of the Catalan Parliament which decided to re-elect him even in his absence (against the opinion of the Spanish Court), something in which, only a couple of months ago, he had no hope, as demonstrated by the text messages he sent to the former minister Toni Comín, filmed, while the latter scrolled through them, by a Telecinco camera positioned behind him.

“I have been sacrificed,” it read all too distinctly, and also “The battle is over.” But the battle isn’t over until it’s over, and the battle for an independent Catalonia has, with the arrest of its president, made the leap in quality to become an international case. More and more voices are being raised asking Germany to think carefully about its moves. Extradite Puigdemont for rebellion and thus condemn him to 30 years in prison (1 hour of fresh air a day, 10 telephone calls of 5 minutes a week, only 1 interview of 40 minutes behind glass: this is the regime to which the independentists already in prison) is a choice, regardless of how one thinks about the merits of the Catalan affair, not only disproportionate, but also dangerous for the social peace of Catalonia, of the whole of Spain and perhaps of Europe itself which cannot allow that in 2018 there are still citizens who can define themselves as political prisoners.

At Waterloo, where Puigdemont lived his exile, Napoleon lost the battle of his life. After that there was only St. Helena.

Who knows, maybe the karma of the place repeats history. It remains to be seen who Napoleon is this time.

Source: Vanity Fair

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