Yet another high-wire act from a cartoonist’s delight
Yet another high-wire act from a cartoonist’s delight
Flair has never been one of French Prime Minister Raymond Barre’s strong points. His personality is routinely described as “uncharismatic.” His portly, earnest figure, making its regular pronouncements on the French economy, has become such a cartoonists’ delight that even he was moved to dub himself “a round square.” But this week, as Barre comes calling on Ottawa and Quebec City—the first official visit by a French prime minister in 22 years—the binoculars of the external affairs department will be trained on his every move, counting on precisely that lack of showmanship.
Barre arrives as Franco-Canadian relations, viewed from the Seine at least, are warily edging back in from the cold after the frosts brought on by Charles de Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec Libre” in 1967 and President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s own flourish in 1977 when he decorated René Lévesque and saluted him with a verse from Gilles Vigneault’s separatist anthem Mon Pays. Though Barre’s trip is scripted according to Giscard d’Estaing’s delicate double-négative line for the Quebec conundrum—“non-interference but nonindifference”—even Quebec officials, who regard the visit as somewhat of a coup, expect no dramatics, at least on Barre’s part.
That, however, has stopped neither the Trudeau nor the Lévesque government from scrambling to upstage each other. Indeed, after months of discreet diplomatic bickering over Barre’s time, the 54-year-old former economics professor may feel somewhat like the cartoon character he has been depicted as: Babar, the fabulous elephant adored by French toddlers, who once found himself, parasol in hand, uneasily walking a circus high wire.
Ottawa claims his trip originates with an invitation Pierre Trudeau issued to Barre’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, during his own foray to Paris in 1974. Quebec asserts that it was laid on during Lévesque’s visit to Paris when, much to federal shock, the French agreed to an annual exchange of prime ministers with the province. To which summons is Barre in fact responding? “Both,” replies his office, with ponderous gallantry.
Dividing up his six-day stay proved no less touchy. After prolonged federal-
provincial haggling and a flurry of trans-Atlantic cables, each side agreed to two days of official visiting while slicing up the unofficial weekend in between. A Canadian embassy spokesman in Paris insists that it works out “about equally,” with Trudeau getting a private Saturday morning tête-à-tête in the Gatineau hills. But the Quebec delegation is gloating over the fact that Barre dines privately with Lévesque Saturday night, before being squired around Montreal on Sunday by Jean Drapeau and dropping into
the Quebec Winter Carnival.
That, however, is a great deal better than the original scenario which had Barre flying directly to Quebec City from the United States—an uncomfortable echo of de Gaulle’s triumphant landing at Wolfe’s Cove in 1967. Ottawa has also been busy priming the pressat least 60 top French journalists will be covering the visit and Trudeau hoped to have taken some of the élan out of their pens by flying half a dozen reporters over from Paris for a pre-Barre interview at which, naturally, the seriousness of the PQ “threat” to Canadian unity was heavily stressed.
Fortunately for everyone’s feelings, perhaps, Barre knows all about treading on eggshells. Ever since Giscard d’Estaing called him in to take over after Chirac’s huffy resignation as prime minister in August, 1976, he has been charged not only with balancing France’s shaky economy but holding together the squabbling government alliance of Centrists and Gaullists against the onslaught of Socialists and Communists.
The jury is still out on Barre’s prescriptions for the French economy—so far the franc is stronger and trade better. But Barre has done Giscard d’Estaing yet another good turn by drawing the fire of leftists bitter over an inflation rate which continues to hover near 10 per cent and a post-war unemployment high of 1.3 million. (The president’s popularity, of course, continues to soar.)
It all adds up to service beyond the call of duty. But, alas for Barre, unkind observers predict that as the 1981 presidential election nears, the prime minister may find himself metamorphosed from Giscard d’Estaing’s willing beast of burden in the front line to a scapegoat who must be duly sacrificed.
Such gossip merely adds to the spice of what, for February, promises to be a fairly heated occasion. While Quebec has prepared a noisy popular welcome, complete with crowds lured out by the presence of the province’s most beloved entertainers, the Lévesque government is already complaining that Trudeau plans to steal its thunder by proffering the French some handsome commercial coups. Lamented one Péquiste spokesman: “They have a bigger budget than ours.”
France has long been bidding on a proposed Canadian nuclear-powered icebreaker as well as a project to transport liquefied natural gas out of the Arctic and refurbish Air Canada’s tired fleet. “Of course, Mr. Barre is going to Canada as head of government, not as a salesman,” says an aide. “But if he should happen to come back with some contracts, well, who could complain?” Marci McDonald
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