Quebec gets the French kiss-off

Sarkozy’s indifference is just the latest sign of sovereignty’s wane

Quebec gets the French kiss-off

Rejoice! We bring word of the latest progress in the inevitable march of the Québécois nation toward independence or sovereignty or sovereignty-partnership or whatever we’re calling it this week—but never mind that now, because look! Giant steps:

On Monday, Pierre Paquette, the House leader of the Bloc Québécois, reacted to the letter French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote a week earlier, in response to a letter written on Feb. 4 by Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, taking issue with remarks Sarkozy made on Feb. 2 when he decorated Jean Charest, Quebec’s premier, as a commander of France’s Légion d’honneur.

Already you can feel the heartbeat of history. Surely you are wondering what the House leader said about the letter in reply to the letter in response to the remarks. Because these are the things history is made of, no? Yes? No?

Let us unspool this chain of events backwards, so as to properly admire its majesty. In giving Charest his medal, Sarkozy had said, on the general subject of Quebec separatism, “Do you believe the world, as it faces an unprecedented crisis, needs more divisions?” He said Quebecers are France’s “brothers” and Canadians its “friends.” And all of them—France, brothers, friends—stand opposed to “sectarianism, division, closed-mindedness.”

“Is it to prove that you love somebody that you’re required to hate their neighbours?” he asked. “If your idea is strong, you don’t need to be an imbecile. You don’t need to be aggressive.”

Well, he might as well have lit a stink bomb. “What are you talking about, Mr. President?” asked Marois, who is a provincial opposition leader, and Duceppe, who isn’t even that important, in a letter two days later. “We didn’t think General de Gaulle was urging us toward closed-mindedness when he said, in July 1967, ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ ” They complained about his “lack of respect” and his “contemptible epithets.” They warned him that it is “not impossible” that Quebecers vote yes to sovereignty or sovereignty-partnership or whatever while he is still president of France, i.e., sometime before 2017 at the outside. It was a very long letter.

And it “occupied all of my attention,” Sarkozy claimed in his reply 12 days later, thus raising a startling question: is anything, anywhere so trivial it manages to escape Nicolas Sarkozy’s attention? But most of Marois’s and Duceppe’s arguments didn’t get a direct answer from him; instead he writes, generally, that he wants to “deepen in every domain the unique relation that links France to Quebec.” And that the best way to do this is “in harmony with the relation that France maintains with all of Canada.” In other words, he doesn’t believe the world needs more divisions. Which is kind of where this whole thing started.

Yet even though Sarkozy didn’t back off an inch, Marois and Duceppe decided they’d had enough of this surreally picayune fight. Paquette, who used to be a bit of a rising star in the Bloc and who wears an imposing helmet of improbably curly hair, was left to bat cleanup. Sure, it’s great when everyone can work together, but sometimes Quebec and the rest of Canada disagree, he told reporters. The Bloc is “persuaded” that Sarko “will be sensitive to this reality,” Paquette concluded, lamely.

This is what the struggle for Quebec’s independence has come to, in its long twilight. Two champions: Marois, who lost the Parti Québécois leadership races in 1985 and 2005; and Duceppe, who spent the weekend as a candidate for the same job in 2007 before fleeing the Marois juggernaut. One antagonist: the president of almost the only foreign country that has ever been persuaded to confect even a passing interest in Quebec’s constitutional future. If this is how good the separatist movement is at winning fights these days, perhaps it’s best if it avoids fights for awhile.

So it must have come as some relief when the National Parks Commission announced on Tuesday that it will cancel a re-enactment of the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham that was scheduled for later this year. Apparently there was some danger the French side might lose. André Juneau, the commission head, blamed the cancellation on the fact the weekend warriors planning to recreate the battle had been subject to “excessive language and threats.” And indeed, there had been some of those. Pierre Falardeau, the filmmaker, said “some people will get their asses kicked” if it went ahead. A fringe group called the Quebec Resistance Network had promised the re-enactors “a visit they won’t soon forget.”

That’s all; nothing sectarian, imbecilic or aggressive, mind you.

Commentators in English Canada are often warned not to announce the death of the separatist movement, and I won’t tempt fate by doing so here. But like Monty Python’s parrot, it does seem to be napping. Separatists distract themselves by getting horribly excited about side issues—the improvised remarks of a fabulously flighty French president, the disappointing outcome of a 250-year-old skirmish between two foreign armies—because the central issue remains intractable: if a secession is something that must be (a) desired by Quebecers and (b) negotiated with the rest of Canada, then it remains out of reach.

This state of affairs is starting to settle in. Not only is the separatist movement in bad shape, but it’s been in bad shape for most of a decade now. Sarkozy’s remarks, for instance, were bracing in their frankness but hardly new. François Mitterrand could barely conceal his impatience with Quebec separatists. In one of his last public speeches, he said “nationalism is war.” He was speaking of the European variety, and from long experience. But even though they have been trying for decades the separatists have been unable to persuade outsiders that theirs is a uniquely smiley-faced nationalism.

If separatists are upset that they never had Mitterrand, it is far more galling to them to realize they had Jacques Chirac and lost him. In 1995, before he became France’s president, Chirac told CNN’s Larry King that in the event of a yes vote, France would “recognize the fact.” Carefully parsed, this is a nearly meaningless phrase, but Quebecers were not wrong to view it as an expression of at least casual sympathy for the sovereignist cause. But then Chirac’s old friend Jean Pelletier set to work on him. Pelletier had been mayor of Quebec City when Chirac was mayor of Paris. Now, as Jean Chrétien’s chief of staff, Pelletier mended the tense relationship between the Canadian prime minister and the French president, to the point where Chrétien’s last stop on his last official trip as prime minister was Paris. Relations between the two countries “have never been better,” Chirac said. “Never.” He called Canada “an invitation to hope for the future.”

Through all these years, Louise Beaudoin was the Parti Québécois’s chief envoy in charge of talking up her party’s cause among the swells in Paris. Which explains why, when Pelletier died last month and Quebec’s National Assembly took a moment to note the passing of the Quebec capital’s great former mayor, Beaudoin left the room. In the battle for the affections of official France, he had beaten her in a rout. She should not feel too bad; he simply had the easier case to make. Article 1 of France’s constitution, after all, calls that country “a republic, one and indivisible.”

Alain Dubuc, the veteran La Presse columnist, summed up all that history last week. Together, Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy represent almost 30 years of “annoyed indifference” among France’s leaders with regard to Quebec’s constitutional status, Dubuc wrote. “That’s starting to be a lot of people.”

And France’s attitude would barely have mattered in the first place. In a secession attempt, world opinion would take its cues from precisely one world capital: Ottawa. If the federal government agrees to negotiate the terms of secession and the outcome of those negotiations is successfully ratified according to Canada’s Constitution, no foreign government will hesitate to recognize Quebec. In the absence of those conditions, none would dare to second-guess Ottawa. And what will determine the federal government’s reaction? The 1999 Clarity Act, which requires a “clear answer” to a “clear question” and gives Parliament the mandate to decide whether those two conditions have been met.

So basically, the role of French presidents was simply to make Quebec separatists feel better about being stuck in a constitutional polity with the rest of us, and for three decades they haven’t even bothered to do that much. It is reassuring to see that the sovereignty movement can’t get better service in Paris than I did while I lived there.

As for the Clarity Act, Stephen Harper has never said a word against it, nor Michael Ignatieff, nor even most Quebecers. A year after it passed into law, Lucien Bouchard, the lion of the 1995 Quebec referendum, quit politics. On the day he resigned, he complained that Quebecers had proved “astonishingly impassive in the face of federal offences like the social union, the Millennium Scholarship program, the creation of university [research] chairs, and the adoption of [the Clarity Act].”

These were the articles of indictment against Canada that Bouchard was able to muster on the day he gave up: the federal government had spent tax dollars on social programs, education and research, and demanded of Quebecers that they ask nicely before leaving. A decade later his successors no longer even bother to look for worse provocations from anybody who lives here in the present day. Instead they try to pick fights with vanished armies and foreign potentates. It is a miserable way to make a living. What happens to a dream deferred? Sometimes after a while, it starts to look like a silly dream.

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