FIVE years ago the mayor of Girona, the largest city in northern Catalonia, noted that David Cameron and Alex Salmond had just signed a deal to ensure that an independence referendum could take place in Scotland.

It was, the mayor said, a European paradox that permitted one government and EU member state to grant such a landmark plebiscite – and another member state, Spain, to declare it as treasonous. "This is the most important moment in our history, this is very important a moment for us," he said of his native Catalans. "Our relationship with Spain is at an end. Enough is enough.”

Today, Carles Puigdemont i Casamajo is the Catalan president overseeing an eagerly awaited but controversial independence referendum that is being staged across the prosperous, restive region. Spanish courts and the central government have, however, described it as illegal. Spain’s Attorney-General declined, last Monday, to rule out the possibility that Puigdemont himself might be arrested. And 14 high-level Catalan officials have been locked up and around 10 million ballot papers seized.

Cataloguing the Spanish government’s unambiguously hostile reaction, Puigdemont, writing in September, drew parallels with Franco-era Spain: “Catalan home rule has effectively been suspended due to this anti-democratic attitude from the Spanish government. It’s a situation that harks back to the dark past of this country, when democracy was not a part of the Spanish dictionary. What is happening here in Catalonia would not happen anywhere else in the European Union … With the arrests of high-ranking officials and threats to detain democratically-elected politicians, I believe the Spanish government has violated the European charter of fundamental rights.”

When Puigdemont was officially sworn in on January 12. 2016, as the 130th President of Catalonia, he was not terribly well known across Spain. But all of that has changed now.

He was born into a family of bakers in the town of Amer, in Girona, on December 29, 1962. He studied for a degree in Catalan philology at the University College of Girona and afterwards embarked on a career as a journalist at El Punt, a Catalan daily newspaper, rising to become editor-in-chief. He became the chief editor of Catalonia Today, a daily newspaper in English which he helped launch, and was also director of the Catalan News Agency.

He is married to a Romanian journalist, Marcela Topor, and has two daughters. Among his private passions are FC Barcelona and playing rock guitar. His mop-like hair style makes him look younger than his 54 years.

His biography on the Government of Catalonia website reveals that Puigdemont has long been interested in how Catalonia is seen abroad. In 1994 he published a book – the title of which translated as Catalonia as Seen by the Foreign Media – and he later penned a weekly column on the issue in the magazine Presència.

Between 2002 and 2004 he was director of the Girona cultural centre, Casa de Cultura, and it was later that his active political career took off. In 2006 he became a CiU (Convergence and Union) Party member of the Catalonia parliament.

He was elected mayor of Girona in 2011 and served on the Executive Committee of the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI). In May 2015 he was returned as mayor and became AMI president – a post that was his until January 2016, when he stepped up to become president of Catalonia itself.

Puigdemont was not, however, elected as president. His appointment came as the result of a last-gasp deal between Catalan separatist parties to replace Artur Mas as leader of the region. Mas personally chose him as his successor.

He told the regional parliament: "A few hours ago I was mayor of Girona and I had not thought that I could be here today in the situation in which I find myself. Sometimes one has to take on responsibilities that weren't those one imagined … I am fully aware that we are starting a process that is far from easy and far from comfortable, but we will put into it value and courage. This isn't a time for cowards, nor for rashness, nor for renunciations."

A recent news agency profile of Puigdemont said he was initially dismissed by many Spaniards as Mas’s puppet and that he was not expected to last long. But he has proven to be a formidable leader in his own right, it added, as he has succeeded in keeping together the ramshackle coalition of conservatives, leftists and anti-establishment radicals that shore up his government and its push for independence.

Puigdemont has reportedly emphasised that he does not intend to stay in office and that, once Catalonian independence has been kick-started, he will make way for a successor. It’s notable, however, that he has thus far failed to make any friends outwith the region or to win any international body over to his pro-independence beliefs. The Spanish government, of course, remains implacably opposed to any referendum, and Spanish parties have on occasion described his government as authoritarian.

Last Tuesday, Puigdemont rang Masoud Barzani, the de facto president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, to offer his congratulations on the independence referendum in which more than 92 per cent of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan supported secession. He will be fervently hoping that that gesture is reciprocated at some point today.