The prospect of a wealthy country tearing itself apart fails to impress the French
A separatist sideshow in Paris
The prospect of a wealthy country tearing itself apart fails to impress the French
"You’ll have to excuse me,” said Claude Boucher as he rushed out of the lobby of the Hotel Lutetia in Paris onto a busy Left Bank side-walk and squinted into the bright May sunshine, searching for his quarry. “But I can’t lose him.”
Boucher is a senior official at Canada’s embassy in Paris. “Him” was Lucien Bouchard, leader of the official Opposition, leader of the separatist Bloc Québécois and Public Enemy No. 1 to Canadian federalists. Bouchard was on an official visit to Paris last week for four days of meetings with French politicians, and at that moment was hopping into the back of a Canadian embassy car to speed off to see Alain Juppe, France’s foreign minister. Boucher’s job was to stick by Bouchard’s side, to make sure that Ottawa was represented every time he explained to the French how Quebec plans to separate from Canada. It was an awkward, uncomfortable arrangement for Canadian officials. But that was how federalists seemed to spend their time last week: following, reacting to, worrying about and generally being driven crazy by Lucien Bouchard.
Some of the confusion was natural. As Opposition leader, Bouchard is entitled to travel abroad to meet with foreign leaders, to have the full support of Canada’s embassies and to discuss international issues from declining fish stocks to
Bosnia. There are plenty of precedents for that. But his mission in politics is to take Quebec out of Canada and, as Bouchard said, “don’t expect me to be a sovereigntist in Quebec and a federalist when I’m travelling.” But the contradiction rankled federalists. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein called it “reprehensible,” though Canadian officials in Paris were more cautious. “Mr. Bouchard will have to determine when he is acting as the leader of the Opposition, and when he is the leader of the Bloc Québécois,” Benoit Bouchard, Canada’s ambassador to France, said with an amused laugh after the two men met at the start of the visit. “That’s not my problem, to know who he is being exactly at what time.”
Those federalists who twisted themselves into apoplectic knots over the visit need not have worried that Canada’s domestic laundry was being washed in full view of the French public. Not a word about Bouchard’s tour appeared in main French newspapers or on television broadcasts, although he did give some interviews for later publication. The French are well aware of the trend towards messy nationalist confrontations, most of them far more worrisome and far closer to their borders. The prospect of a wealthy North American country tearing itself in two is, at best, a quaint sideshow to Europe’s ethnic cauldron. “In France, the problems of our country are not well received,” said François Cloutier, who represented Quebec’s Liberal government in Paris until the Parti Québécois took power in 1976, and who still lives in Paris. “After Rwanda, Bosnia, what happens in Canada is irrelevant here.” Even indépendantistes acknowledge that the French have lost some of their fire for the cause. Bouchard’s visit was organized by Louise Beaudoin, the very capable PQ member who has moved comfortably in the corridors of French power since the 1970s, and who was instrumental in broadening support for separatism from its right-wing, Gaullist base into Socialist Party ranks. Beaudoin notes that the decline in French interest in the future of the Canadian federation began after the PQ lost the 1980 referendum. “I believe that a majority of French politicians in every party still support Quebec,” she said last week. “But they are not excited the way they were in the 1970s when it seemed like independence was about to happen. They were disappointed by the referendum, too. Now they say to us, ‘Do it first. You can’t
come back to us every 15 years and expect us to get worked up.’ ”
That altered attitude does not ease the minds of those federalists who remain convinced that France is up to no good. Ever since Charles de Gaulle’s famous rallying cry of “Vive le Québec fibre” on the balcony of Montreal’s City Hall in 1967, there have been Canadians who believe France still schemes of ways to promote Quebec independence. Certainly, de Gaulle’s political descendants remain willing to pick up the banner. One of them, François Guillaume, vice-president of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, even appeared in public with Bouchard to talk about his fond wish for Quebec to become independent. But the fact was that anyone who mattered in the French political establishment was careful last week not to wade into Canada’s problems. Juppe said that he reminded Bouchard that France’s traditional position on the isuue was “non-indifference but non-interference.” President François Mitterrand granted Bouchard a private interview, but issued no statement afterward.
The most prominent friend of Quebec last week was former socialist
prime minister Michel Rocard, who created a minor splash in Canada when he opined that France should lead the push for Quebec’s international recognition if a majority of Quebecers vote for sovereignty in a referendum. But polls show that Rocard is in steep decline as a force in French politics. And while he said that France wanted to remain “faithful to its friends,” he carefully added that Quebec’s future will be decided by Quebecers alone. “We are not in the business of reconquering our empire,” the diminutive Rocard said with a cagey smile after he and Bouchard finished their social lunch. There was no reason to suspect that the two men were conspiring, he said. ‘We just like one another,” he added with a sharp cry of “Hah” and a playful lunge towards the slightly startled Bouchard.
At any rate, Bouchard never expected any endorsements from the French government. And the issue of international recognition is somewhat artificial: if Quebec chooses independence in a democratic referendum and makes the proper guarantees to abide by the norms of international relations, recognition could hardly be denied. Canada itself, for example, rushed to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991, largely to appease the large constituency of Ukrainian-Canadians. Instead, Bouchard’s attentions remain firmly fixed on those who will decide Quebec’s—and his—future: Quebec voters.
Despite his insistence that the visit was “to inform our allies of the political situation,” and to “spare them any surprises” if a referendum on sovereignty is held next year, Bouchard’s real goal was to reassure Quebecers that independence would not leave them international pariahs. ‘We needed to show Quebecers that independence is something doable, to get people thinking that the idea of independence is not outrageous, to get them used to the idea,” said Beaudoin. “Engfish-Canadians and Americans aren’t going to encourage us, so it was important to show Quebecers that there are people who believe that our project is possible.” Bouchard is perfect for the role of cultivating the French. During his 2xh years in Paris as Canada’s ambassador in the mid-1980s, Bouchard forged some strong finks with the French political establishment, and won particular gratitude from Mitterrand for his crucial work in bringing Quebec and Canada into the Francophonie, the commonwealth of French-speaking nations that the French have always held dear. “Lucien claimed he had privileged access to Mitterrand,” said one longtime friend who stopped speaking to Bouchard after he quit the Mulroney government in 1990. “Before he left the ambassador’s job, he said he had a long meeting with Mitterrand § where Mitterrand supposedly opened up his soul to him. Lucien said it was like a father-son relationship.”
Indeed, there was feeling that Bouchard was among family in France. There were no federalist sympathizers to chalz lenge Bouchard’s reading of history or the contradictions § that occasionally pop into his philosophy. To Bouchard, Quebecers are “second-class citizens” with no power in the Canadian federation. But at the same time, it was Quebec that “imposed the Free Trade Agreement on English Canada.” And Bouchard described the treatment of the French-speaking minorities outside Quebec as “appalling” and “shameful,” and left an audience of academics and diplomats in Paris with the impression that children studying in French outside Quebec must do so in schools without bathrooms.
French audiences, by now accustomed to accounts of terribly treated minorities in other parts of Europe—where some ethnic groups are, in fact, barred from using their language in public at all—could not be blamed for accepting some exaggerations at face value. Europe has no shortage of nationalist leaders comfortable in the language of an oppressed people, and Bouchard liberally sprinkles his pitch with phrases such as “sacred borders” and “rendezvous with history.” It is a powerful pitch that may startle many Canadians. But it is part of a wellwhistled tune in the Europe of the 1990s.
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