WORLD

Getting along without Quebec

Bruce Wallace February 3 1997
WORLD

Getting along without Quebec

Bruce Wallace February 3 1997

Getting along without Quebec

WORLD

PARIS

Bruce Wallace

When Jean Chrétien and Jacques Chirac emerged from the French President’s Elysée Palace after their luncheon last week, they paused on the steps to show off the happy state of Ottawa-Paris relations for the cameras. They beamed at each other long and hard. Hands gripped upper arms. At one point, their heads tipped back in laughter, presumably at some inside joke that only the leaders of nations can share. Chirac even waited around while Chrétien swatted reporters’ queries on the Quebec Question out of the park, then shuffled across the pebbled Elysée courtyard for a last goodbye. His raised palm hung stiffly in the air as Chrétien’s limousine pulled away, like a father in the driveway seeing off his son after a too-rare visit home.

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It was “a gesture that protocol did not demand,” said Chirac’s spokeswoman, in case anyone missed the point of the over-thetop chumminess. No one could.

Every trip to Paris by a Canadian or Quebec leader stirs the tea leaves, with observers peering at the most remote symbolism for insight into French diplomatic thinking. Did they lay on an honor guard befitting a head of state for Fucien Bouchard? Was Chrétien granted a longer private meeting with Chirac than Bouchard received the last time he came through? It is a vaguely embarrassing element of Canadian political culture that reporters and officials generally feel the need to treat the gilded halls of the French Senate or the Quai d’Orsay as nothing more than backdrops for a national unity debate road trip.

It is also apparently becoming a tired routine for even the most Gaullist of French politicians. Once, they were amused to be handed opportunities to stir things up. But two referendums later, Prime Minister Alain Juppé affects a fatigued air in dismissing reporters’ entreaties to meddle. Juppé has graver matters to sweat, like Algerian terrorist attacks in French cities, and a majori-

ty of French workers who believe they should be allowed to retire at age 55 on state pensions. Quebec is just not a priority. Or, as Chrétien put it, “there are not many people in Paris who did not sleep last night” worrying about Quebec independence.

So “friendship” was the mantra for Chrétien and his French counterparts, with federal officials asserting that relations have not been as good since Canadian soldiers helped smash the Vichy government. The

explanation for the sudden warmth is simple: the international issues that matter most to the French these days demand a tilt towards Ottawa. Canada is a potential ally for France on everything from NATO expansion, to the crisis in Zaïre, and the quest to exempt cultural industries from American entertainment imperialism.

That shared world view was reflected in the agreement last week to boost the political clout of the Francophonie, the association binding the world’s French-speaking countries, which until now has focused on promoting cultural, scientific and technical links. France is fighting to develop an international counterweight to American power, and a more assertive Francophonie with a powerful secretary general is a pillar of that policy. Maclean’s has learned that the French want former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali to become the Fran-

cophonie’s first secretary general when the organization gathers in Hanoi this fall. “We are going to rehabilitate Boutros-Ghali,” said a source active in French Francophonie circles. In Paris last week, Boutros-Ghali told Maclean’s that he had “received proposals from different member states” of the Francophonie and had “no practical objections” about accepting the post. “But it’s too early to give an answer.” Aside from giving the body a savvy, highly regarded leader, his appointment would poke a finger in the eye of the Clinton administration, which vetoed his re-election to the UN job last December.

Chrétien himself took a few slaps at Washington in a way that must have made Chirac grin. The normally dour Juppé was also jovial in Chrétien’s presence, which was a substantial amount of time for those still in the habit of counting: a lunch, two dinners and an unscheduled breakfast tête-a-tête. The old tensions over S Quebec that kept Pierre Trudeau 3 from visiting France during his § first six years as prime minister g seem to have lifted. “The most S contentious issue recently was I our decision to condemn French £ nuclear testing,” said one Canadian official. Even Quebec’s delegation in Paris sees benefits to reducing the amount of intrigue. Last fall, the two Canadian missions held a joint news conference in Paris—at a neutral site—extolling the safety of asbestos products.

All is never perfectly smooth, of course. At a colloquium on the life of François Mitterrand held in Paris in January, Quebec Culture Minister Louise Beaudoin suggested that the late French president expressed his support for Quebec independence just after the narrow No vote in October, 1995. “These things take time,” were Mitterrand’s reportedly reassuring words to a secretary. “That’s crap, a myth,” said a Parisian friend of Chrétien’s. “It’s possible but unlikely,” said Georges-Marc Benamou, author of the current best-seller The Last Mitterrand, to whom the late president confided during his last months. Separatists and federalists battling over the last words of a dead man. For now, at least, it’s out of fashion. □