“Long live our president!” yelled fervent young locals from Catalonia as their former leader, Carles Puigdemont, emerged just hours after being released from a prison cell. He was heading to a press conference in Kreuzberg, one of Berlin’s hipster, still-gentrifying neighborhoods, where protests are common and such events are rare. It was organized hastily after a plan for a press conference in Münster, where Mr. Puigdemont was jailed, fell through for “legal reasons.”
As his car pulled up, there was massive applause from the street, lined with yellow flags. Onlookers threw yellow flowers, to Mr. Puigdemont’s surprise.
The secessionist leader of Catalonia had been arrested by German police on March 25 as he drove from Denmark toward his home in exile in a suburb outside Brussels. Spain wants him extradited on charges of rebellion and embezzlement after he held a referendum on Catalan independence. But instead, the state court of Schleswig Holstein released Mr. Puigdemont on bail set at €75,000 ($92,000) as they consider the embezzlement charge, as long as he remains in Germany, among other conditions.
Cries of “our president, our president” ring out between the scruffy high rises.
Mr. Puigdemont wore a yellow ribbon on his lapel, the color that has come to symbolize Catalan independence. He stepped onto a small stage in the Aquarium bar in the traditionally left-wing, alternative Südblock café, and gave a sheepish smile.
Cameras flashed. Journalists and news agencies from all over Europe crammed in to listen, squashing in beside Mr. Puigdemont’s fans, and competing for space with ex-politicians from Catalonia and local, former squatters. Among the shoving, organizers urged non-media to move to the back.
Mr. Puigdemont gave a speech first in Catalan, before repeating it in Spanish and English (he also speaks French and Romanian, a press spokesman told the crowd). But he didn’t talk about revolution, victory over the courts or forming his own nation. He spoke instead of dialogue, patience and his love of Europe and said again that independence is not the only solution for his region. He said that he and his movement are open to hearing what the Spanish government has to say.
German journalists in the crowd fired off questions, one permitted to each media organization. Mr. Puigdemont told them he planned to go back to Belgium, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since October, if the extradition proceedings turned out in his favor.
Until then, he said, he would try and return to normal life here in Berlin. He called the German capital one of the most interesting cities in Europe, and luckily, he has friends here. When somebody asked which part of town he was living in, Mr. Puigdemont just laughed and said, “The police know.”
In other cities, Mr. Puigdemont has held court in government buildings or luxury hotels – perhaps it is telling that in Germany, he only had a cramped, sweaty cafe. Does this explain how German officialdom feels about him? Most politicians have called this a matter for Spain, though it has since crossed European borders.
After the press conference, Mr. Puigdemont stood in front of the café and chatted with individual supporters, most of whom carried yellow flags. Many were young Spaniards, some of whom traveled from other German cities or even Catalonia to attend the day’s press conference.
Mr. Puigdemont’s fans were reluctant to let him go, when the time came. Dozens followed him to his car, shouting their support. They caught up with him near a block of apartments and some threw yellow tulips while others snapped a selfie. “Our president, our president” some called, while others sang the Catalan anthem. Planned or not, it made for great pictures.
It was a noisy spectacle for a scruffy area where fights are more common than political presentations. Local families leaned over balconies, craning to see the events below. A photo on Twitter showed boys and girls with hijabs who abandoned their bicycles to watch the man and the flags. “Who’s that?” asked a passerby, curious what the fuss was about. “A president? He sure is famous,” he muttered, walking on.
This story was originally published in Handelsblatt Global’s sister publication, Tagesspiegel. It was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org