From the south of France, the independence activist Puigdemont prepares his return to Catalonia

It’s raining heavily in the parking lot of the Argelès-sur-Mer leisure center, but a few security agents brave the torrent to manage the traffic.

People are not used to big events in this small town in the western Pyrenees, but for the past two weeks, there has been a kind of euphoria that takes over the place every evening, around 7 p.m.

It’s the time when around ten buses arrive full of Catalans who disembark, enthusiastic, with their smile and their conviction.

Quick, quick, we’re going to be latesays a woman who brandishes the blood and gold flag of Catalonia and rushes towards the entrance of the auditorium, where hundreds of supporters are already gathered.

Puigdemont for president! chants another, hurrying to find a free chair in the large room where the gathering is about to begin.

The atmosphere is festive with music and a host who warms up the already excited crowd.

The photo of independence leader Carles Puigdemont covers the walls, as does the slogan of his electoral campaign: Catalonia needs independence.

The scene is almost surreal, since we are not in Spain, but in France, although 20 kilometers from the border, the closest the independence leader can get to his country where he risks prison.

We came to him because he is our leader and he cannot come to his country. Justice and police are terrible in Spainsays Josep, before taking his turn sitting among the cheerful crowd waiting, impatient, to see their hero in the flesh.

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Supporters of the president in exile listen, moved, to the independence leader.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Tamara Alteresco

Carles Puigdemont has been in exile for almost seven years.

He has been living in Belgium until now, because despite an arrest warrant issued by Madrid, he enjoys the immunity conferred on him by his status as a Member of the European Parliament and can move freely in Europe, a precious status which he is ready to renounce in launching the race for the presidency of Catalonia, with a view to the elections of May 12.

It is therefore here, 30 kilometers from the border, that he decided to set up his headquarters to allow as many Catalans as possible to come and see him.

For me it is very impressivesays Carles Puigdemont, whom we were able to meet before he went on stage.

This is the first time in six and a half years that I have been able to hold political rallies in person, that is to say like this, live, without a screen, without the distancehe said, moved.

It’s very moving to see this extraordinary mobilization that we had to organize, because we must not forget that we are still conducting the electoral campaign under conditions of democratic abnormality.

If, for a majority of Catalans, Carles Puigdemont is a persecuted hero, he is, for many Spaniards, an alleged criminal on the run.

He is still accused of sedition by Madrid, although an amnesty law could soon clear him and his collaborators for their role in the abortive attempt to secede Catalonia on October 1, 2017.

Then president of the region, Puigdemont organized and then unilaterally declared the independence of Catalonia, following a referendum deemed illegal by Madrid.

His dismissal, his flight from Spain and the imprisonment of dozens of his independentist colleagues remain to this day one of the most tumultuous chapters of Spanish democracy.

A chapter that Puigdemont exploits to the maximum on the big screen which tells the genesis of his exile, to remind us that, despite the distance, he never left the leadership of his party, the Junts per Catalunya, and above all never gave up the cause.

We gave up nothing, absolutely nothingsaid Carles Puigdemont, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

The institution of the presidency, the Catalan government, is an institution that has existed for centuries. And therefore, I have the duty to maintain loyalty and fidelity to the institution, to protect it, to spare it from repression and to return it to where the Catalans must be the ones who decide who is or who is not the president.

A quote from Carles Puigdemont
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Former President Carles Puigdemont smiling to the crowd.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Sergio Santos

In fact, Puigdemont is campaigning for his restoration as president. A return to politics which, it is no coincidence, corresponds to the adoption of an amnesty law by Madrid, which he managed to negotiate with the Spanish Prime Minister, although his great rival, but who had desperately needed the support of the Junts to stay in power.

Besides the political irony of this controversial pact, Carles Puigdemont sees it above all as an admission.

It is a law which means the correction of an error, the error of using the Penal Code, criminal persecution, against a democratic movement, said the independence leader. It was a mistake made by the Spanish state.

Once ratified, the law provides for the dropping of all criminal charges.

Music to the ears of Nuria, a supporter who is ready to return to Argelès-sur-Mer by May 12 to show her support.

We will do everything for him to win, says Nuria. It’s amazing to be able to come here, isn’t it? Maybe it seems weird to some, but to me, it’s a reaffirmation of the will of a people.

A people from whom Puigdemont has been cut off for seven years and who he risks finding very different from the one he left in 2017.

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It is enough to cross into Spain and stop in the city of Girona, former stronghold of Puigdemont, to grasp the mood of the Catalan electorate and see that their victory is not assured.

I think his turn has passed, said Juan Carlos, whom we passed near an intersection where electoral posters compete for the attention of passers-by.

In my opinion, we need new bloodadds the father who, although he has not renounced independence, retains a bitter taste of what politics has become in Catalonia since 2017.

Like several other Catalans we spoke with about politics, he says the independence movement has split into several factions and no longer offers a social project to which we can cling.

So much so that the polls predict for the first time in 15 years the victory of a non-independence party, the Socialists.

The emotion of 2017 is no longer there, says Xell, a waitress. Puigdemont can try to come back, rekindle the flame, but the passion is no longer there, for me.

Puigdemont, for his part, advocates rallying. Which pro-independence political group can really win? We are the only ones who have kept the same position. We didn’t give up anything.

He accuses others, including the outgoing president, of having bowed to Madrid’s demands, to the detriment of Catalonia’s autonomy.

He has a few days left, until May 12, to convince the Catalans, those who do not drive hours to support him.

>>An excited crowd waves flags of Catalonia.>>

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An excited crowd waves flags of Catalonia.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Tamara Alteresco

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