BARCELONA: Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia who pushed ahead with Sunday's banned independence referendum, has been a convinced secessionist since his youth, long before the issue moved to the centre of Catalan politics.
The destiny of this 54-year-old journalist changed in January 2016 when he was selected at the last minute to lead a coalition of separatist parties which had won a majority of seats in the regional parliament three months earlier.
A virtual unknown when he became president of the northeastern Spanish region of 7.5 million people, he has since doggedly pursued the goal of winning independence for Catalonia. It has made him the main enemy of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government.
"In these hugely intense and hugely emotional moments, we sense that what we once thought was only a dream is within reach," he told a crowd of cheering supporters Friday, as he closed his campaign for a referendum which has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.
Puigdemont was born in Amer, a small mountain village of about 2,200 people, on Dec 29, 1962, the second of eight siblings.
In the village, where he grew up in a modest family of bakers, and in Girona, where he served as mayor from 2011 to 2016, he is recalled as a dyed-in-the-wool separatist.
"In Catalonia many people became separatists in an allergic reaction to Madrid's policies. Not him, he always had these convictions," said Puigdemont's friend Antoni Puigverd, a poet and journalist.
His friend Salvador Clara, a leftwing secessionist councillor in Amer, added that Puigdemont had defended the independence of Catalonia "since he can remember".
Puigdemont, who wears his hair in a shaggy Beatles-style mop, has never hidden his separatist convictions, not even back in 1980 when he joined the conservative nationalist Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya (CDC) party.
At the time the CDC wanted only to negotiate greater autonomy for Catalonia - far from the idea of breaking away from Spain.
"We're a pro-independence family through and through," his sister Anna, who runs the family bakery in Amer, told AFP.
In July 2015 Puigdemont became president of the Association of Municipalities for Independence, which brings together local entities to promote the right to self-determination.
For 17 years he worked for Catalonia's nationalist daily El Punt, which now publishes under the name El Punt Avui after merging with another paper. He later created a regional news agency and an English-language newspaper about his region.
"He always combined his political activism with journalism," said Ramon Iglesias, a journalist with the Cadena Ser news radio station in Girona.
In 1991, while working at a local newspaper in Girona, Puigdemont launched a campaign to change the spelling of the name of the city from the Spanish version, Gerona, to Girona, the Catalan spelling, Iglesias recalled.
For Silvia Paneque, head of the opposition Socialists in Girona, Puigdemont at times carries out a form of nationalism that "insists in separating those for and against independence."
Puigdemont speaks English and French, as did his predecessor Artur Mas. But the current Catalan leader also speaks Romanian - his wife Marcela Topor, with whom he has two daughters, comes from Romania.
But unlike Mas, who implemented unpopular austerity measures during Spain's economic crisis, Puigdemont is more of a social democrat who was better able to seduce the far-left members of Catalonia's separatist faction.
Enric Juliana, a Catalan journalist, said Puigdemont's longstanding separatist convictions made him the "ideal candidate" to succeed Mas, who never managed to convince some separatists of his dedication to a cause he embraced only a few years ago.
In June 2016, when far-left separatists withdrew their support, he took a risk and called a motion of no confidence in the Catalan regional parliament, which he survived.
And in July he did not hesitate to dismiss four members of his government whose dedication to the referendum was questioned.
"He arrived where he is by chance. He did not aspire to a political career, and that has given him enormous freedom," Puigverd said.