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Has Carles Puigdemont Finally Run Out of Road?

Mr. Puigdemont has nonetheless managed to make himself a persistent nuisance to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who had hoped to be rid of him by now.

In December, Mr. Rajoy called for early regional elections in Catalonia, hoping voters would replace Mr. Puigdemont and other separatist politicians in the prosperous northeastern region.

Instead, Mr. Puigdemont managed to campaign, via video link, in the town halls of Catalonia. And he won — leaving him both the presumptive leader of Catalonia, and an exile. He continues to lead the Catalan independence movement from more than 800 miles away.

A cartoon in El Mundo, a conservative Spanish newspaper, recently illustrated the complexities of Mr. Puigdemont’s existence by depicting him as a bumblebee, buzzing around the head of Mr. Rajoy, who haplessly points an insect gun in the wrong direction.

This past week, however, a lonely Mr. Puigdemont seemed to admit that he had finally lost his sting.

Though a majority of the new Catalan Parliament wants to reappoint him as leader, the Spanish government and constitutional court will not allow him to be sworn in from abroad — prompting an ally to argue that he should stand down in favor of someone still in Catalonia.

“I suppose you understand that this is over,” Mr. Puigdemont wrote to a colleague in text messages that were caught on camera by a Spanish broadcaster. “Our side has sacrificed us; me, at least.”


Supporters of Catalan independence carried placards with Mr. Puigdemont’s face during a rally in Barcelona last week. Credit Pau Barrena/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But there is a reason some journalists now refer to Mr. Puigdemont as “President Fudgemont.” He has often attempted to occupy parallel realities, most memorably when he declared independence in October before promptly suspending his decision moments later.

Last week was no exception, as he quickly backtracked on the texts. He remains the independence movement’s leadership candidate, he said in a Twitter post.

The despondent messages nevertheless offered a rare glimpse of the man behind the facade — a man who has built a reputation for openness while in practice giving little away about his inner life.

The episode forced his team to admit that in private their leader sometimes lacks the clarity of vision that he projects in public.

“He has his moments — he’s not Superman,” said Joan Maria Piqué, an aide to Mr. Puigdemont whom I met this past week in a hotel in a dreary Brussels suburb.

The hotel is owned by a Catalan family, part of a network of sympathizers Mr. Puigdemont has also relied on for financial support. Employees at the hotel said Mr. Puigdemont had sometimes stayed there when his family visited from Catalonia.

Was he there now?, I wondered. But Mr. Piqué would not say. Could I speak with him? Sadly not.

Curious to meet the man himself, I drove with a colleague to Sint-Pauwels, a village in northern Belgium, close to the Dutch border. The local mayor had confirmed Belgian news reports that Mr. Puigdemont was staying from time to time in a secluded villa there, lent to him by a wealthy businessman.

It was dark by the time we drove down the villa’s tree-lined driveway. The only light came from the headlights of the car. The doorbell went unanswered.

Whether Mr. Puigdemont was there or not, the house seemed a good metaphor for the isolation of its house-sitter, for Mr. Puigdemont has ultimately lived a lonely life since arriving in Belgium.

Back in October, Mr. Puigdemont said his flight to Brussels — along with a handful of his ministers — would put the Catalan debate “in the institutional heart of Europe,” since Belgium is the headquarters of the European Union, whose officials he hoped would bring Madrid to the negotiation table.

But Mr. Puigdemont was unable to make any meaningful headway on the diplomatic front, let alone get any country to recognize the Catalan republic. Instead, the most he could achieve was to put himself in the heart of a strong Flemish nationalist movement, whose leaders are supportive of their Catalan counterparts.


Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain has used emergency constitutional powers in a bid to stop Catalonia’s secessionist movement. Credit Francisco Seco/Associated Press

It was a wealthy Flemish nationalist, Walter Verbraeken, who lent him the villa. The main Flemish party, the New Flemish Alliance, or N.V.A., invited Mr. Puigdemont to their events and their homes.

Mr. Parys, a New Flemish Alliance politician, made dinner for Mr. Puigdemont and his four colleagues. (Mr. Parys cooked a Flemish stew, while Mr. Puigdemont brought Catalan cookies.)

Mr. Puigdemont turned out to be “a very down-to-earth guy,” Mr. Parys said. “He had two phones, and I thought they would be ringing constantly and he would be on the phone the whole time. But that wasn’t the case at all.”

To escape the news media, Mr. Puigdemont has moved houses regularly — sometimes staying in Sint-Pauwels, sometimes in a hotel apartment in Leuven, Mr. Parys’s hometown, and from time to time in Brussels.

“It’s not a very comfortable life,” said Mark Demesmaeker, a New Flemish Alliance lawmaker in the European Parliament who has met Mr. Puigdemont a few times for lunch. “Personally it is hard for him. He’s welcome here, and we are trying to make him feel welcome, but he is not at home.”

His stay has ultimately reaped few rewards, said Vincent Scheltiens, an expert on Flemish and Catalan nationalism at the University of Antwerp. “He made friends with the N.V.A., but he should have sought broader political alliances,” Professor Scheltiens said.

Seeking to build better bridges, Mr. Puigdemont went to Denmark last week to meet with supporters — and then to speak at a public debate at the University of Copenhagen.

But even this had mixed results. One of his interviewers, a politics professor, Marlene Wind, surprised him with a barrage of critical questions that many viewers felt left him ruffled.

Since he had avoided tough questions for much of the past few months, Professor Wind wondered if Mr. Puigdemont had grown unused to criticism.

“He had this expectation that he would be welcomed as a hero,” Ms. Wind said by telephone. “He simply got it wrong — and it could be because of the bubble he’s been living in.”

Where Mr. Puigdemont goes from here is unclear, both in political and practical terms. A Belgian newspaper reported last week that Mr. Puigdemont was moving this month into another rented house, this time in Waterloo — where Napoleon once fought his last stand.

But, naturally, Mr. Puigdemont’s actual whereabouts could not be confirmed.

Source: NYT > World

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