The French President’s triumphal tour

MICHAEL ROSE June 8 1987

The French President’s triumphal tour

MICHAEL ROSE June 8 1987

The French President’s triumphal tour

In July, 1967, after Charles de Gaulle shouted his famous “Vive le Quebec libre” from the balcony of Montreal’s city hall, François Mitterrand, then an opposition Socialist politician in Paris, was among those who criticized the French president’s unprecedented interference in Canadian affairs. Last week, during his own official visit to Canada—the first by a French head of state in 20 years—Mitterrand carefully avoided a repetition of the controversy stirred up by his predecessor. At the end of a rambling speech to a special session of Parliament on his first day in Canada, Mitterrand signalled an official end to the strained relations between Ottawa and Paris over French relations with Quebec. The new battle cry: “Vive le Canada! Vive la France!”

The clearest sign that Mitterrand’s visit marked the normalization of France-Canada relations was that he spent just a third of his five-day visit in Quebec—and, with an 18-hour stop in Regina, became the first French president to travel west of the Ottawa River. In fact, Mitterrand seemed more interested in raising global economic and security issues in his talks with Canadian officials than in discussing domestic affairs. At the same time, however, he used the trip to restate France’s determination to maintain a special relationship with Quebec. As well, Mitterrand was reminded on several occasions that Canada wants a quick end to its long-standing dispute with France over fishing rights off the French islands of St. Pierre-Miquelon.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was determined to address any potentially controversial issues with Mitterrand early in the French leader’s stay. In the House of Commons, just a few hours after Mitterrand’s supersonic Concorde touched down in Ottawa, Mulroney himself raised the spectre of the 1967 diplomatic gaffe. “Twenty years after de Gaulle’s visit,” Mulroney said in greeting the president, “you will find a Canada at peace with itself. We cannot change the past, but we can shape our future.”

In the same speech, Mulroney also raised the St. Pierre-Miquelon issue, identified by Canadian officials before Mitterand’s arrival as the single most serious bilateral irritant. The problem, Mulroney told Mitterrand, would be “a test of our political maturity.”

Canadian officials acknowledged that there could be no real negotiations with Mitterrand on the dispute during his stay. The problem is too complex for quick solutions: since

1977 Canada and France have disagreed about the international boundary around the tiny French islands 12 miles south of Newfoundland. The French have also ignored Canadian quotas for cod in the disputed waters. A controversial decision by Canada last February to increase the official French take of cod in return for a com-

mitment to begin working toward an arbitrated boundary settlement has yielded no concrete results.

In fact, it is French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac who has direct responsibility for such matters. This will lend added significance to a planned visit to Canada by Chirac in late August. Still, Mulroney urged Mitterrand to intensify French efforts to solve the dispute. And over a lunch of Pacific salmon at 24 Sussex Drive with the president and French officials, Mulroney asked Transport Minister John Crosbie—a Newfoundlander familiar with the effects of overfishing on the province— to brief Mitterrand.

But the French president held his ground. In perhaps the most pointed remarks of his visit, Mitterrand said there would be no further negotiations on the dispute until Canada reopened its ports to French trawlers. The ports were closed last March in the wake of the controversy that followed Ottawa’s decision to increase France’s quota. Said Mitterrand, in uncharacteristically direct language: “I disapprove of this way of acting, unilaterally right in the middle of negotiations.”

Mitterrand continued to use strong language about the fishing dispute during his half-day stop in St. PierreMiquelon, on his way home to France Friday afternoon. Mitterrand told about 200 local fishermen and officials in St. Pierre’s community hall that Canada’s “unilateral decision” to close its ports to French commercial vessels was “unacceptable.” Said Mitterrand: “Canada is using force, unjust force. Canada is a friendly country for the most part but is behaving in an unacceptable way in this matter.”

But for the most part, Mitterrand’s public remarks seemed designed to soothe, not offend. His 38-minute address to Parliament did not even mention the word Quebec. The one oblique reference: congratulating Canadians

on the bicultural nature of the country. On Tuesday and Wednesday in Quebec, however, Mitterrand echoed the assertions of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa that Quebec must continue its “direct and privileged” relationship with France. Indeed, Mitterrand said in a speech to the Quebec national assembly that France would continue to have a “special place” for Quebec in its foreign policy.

Mitterrand was clearly more interested in international affairs than in the diplomatic nuances of CanadaFrance relations. In the Commons, he

called on Canada to join France in persuading industrialized nations to do more for the Third World. Among the issues that the French president said he wants addressed at next week’s Venice summit of major industrialized nations: reform of the international monetary system, the threat of protectionist trade policies and the Third World debt crisis. He also insisted that the issue of European subsidies to farmers—which has sparked a damaging agricultural trade war between the European Community and the United States—could be settled only through a much wider discussion of protectionism under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Canadian officials said that they had hoped Mitterrand’s planned visit to a grain farm near Regina would help him understand the effects of European and American agricultural policies on Canadian farmers. But the president arrived in Saskatchewan during the area’s worst rainstorm in almost a year; the deluge made the dirt roads to the farm dangerously slippery, forcing Mitterrand to visit a grain elevator in the rural hamlet of Rowatt instead. Gamely picking his way through deep mud, the urbane Mitterrand stood patiently in the damp loading area of the elevator for 20 minutes, listening—apparently with genuine interest—to an explana-

tion of how local grain is shipped.

Then he sat for longer than scheduled in the elevator’s tiny office to discuss farming issues through a translator with local farmers and officials. Said Larry Parrott, a local representative of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool: “I hope he gets the message that people out here are suffering because of the world trade situation.” Throughout his visit, Mitterrand expressed interest in increasing trade between France and Canada. But he made the point most strongly during a stop in Toronto on Thursday. The president toured the Toronto Stock Exchange before strolling for 20 minutes through the city’s financial district with Ontario Premier David Peterson as hundreds looked on. At a dinner attended by 1,000 people that night in Toronto’s Convention Centre, Mitterrand said that French businessmen

should be encouraged to invest in Canada and expand trade between the two countries—valued at $2.5 billion last year.

Indeed, with the diplomatic storm clouds now cleared away, it is economic relations that will likely dominate dealings between Ottawa and Paris. The clearest statement of the new stakes came from Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé. During a state dinner Monday night in Ottawa, Sauvé told Mitterrand, “The entire country must be able to share in the benefits resulting from the natural bonds between Quebec and France.” In the wake of the president’s tour, Canadian officials hoped such benefits would not be long in coming.


in St. Pierre