Many Pequistes must have choked on their cereal Friday morning when they read La Presse's front page: "A majority wishes for Lucien Bouchard's return." According to a CROP poll, 49 per cent of those surveyed favoured Bouchard's return to politics.
Masochism reached even greater heights among PQ voters with 63 per cent wanting him back. But these were voters, not PQ members, most of whom would rather spend the winter in an ice storm than have Bouchard back.
There's probably nostalgia for charismatic leaders at a time voters remain dissatisfied with Jean Charest and Bernard Landry. But nostalgia doesn't explain why a major newspaper, a clearly federalist one at that, ordered this question on Bouchard within a larger poll, with no mention of other former premiers, and made it the focus of its front-page news. Such interest in Bouchard was quite intriguing.
After his resignation on Jan. 11, 2001, Bouchard did what most former leaders do: He joined a prestigious law firm and a number of influential company boards, made lots of money, built a network of powerful friends and attended an array of glitzy fundraisers.
But a year ago, his public appearances multiplied. He published a number of substantial opinion pieces exclusive to La Presse where his relations with Power Corp. founder Paul Desmarais, the paper's owner, as well as with the paper's president, Guy Crevier, are very good. They co-operate on a number of projects.
Then rumours started in certain quarters that Bouchard had started to test the waters for his return. After Friday's poll, most analysts said this was a no go if only because Pequistes can't forgive him for having buried the promotion of sovereignty the day he became premier, for having turned the language issue into a taboo, and for having imposed his right-wing policies to the point where many longtime Pequistes left, some founding the Union des forces progressistes that now plans to merge with Francoise David's Option citoyenne.
But who said Bouchard, if he ever returned, would go to the PQ? Who said a man who joined more parties than cats have lives wouldn't go somewhere else? Perhaps he'd be tempted to create his own provincial party, as he once thought of doing.
As reported at the time in the Globe and Mail and brought up this year in Pierre Duchesne's third volume on Jacques Parizeau, there was a period when Bouchard thought of creating a third party. From the time Meech faltered in the late 1980s to the early 1990s - even as Bouchard would build the Bloc Quebecois more as a nationalist coalition than a sovereignist party - he saw Parizeau as too hard- line and thought Robert Bourassa incapable of satisfying his soft nationalists who were in disarray.
Bouchard believed that a more middle-ground, provincial party could unite soft Liberal and PQ nationalists. As he joined the Belanger-Campeau commission - tellingly not as a sovereignist but as "nonaligned" - he approached Claude Beland, then president of Desjardins, to create this new party.
But post-Meech Lake Accord politics became rapidly polarized and the nationalist Bouchard became stuck in the sovereignist camp as this option was now the only alternative to the status quo and was supported by more than 60 percent of Quebecers.
Although he put on his Captain Sovereignty costume throughout the referendum campaign in 1995, he spent the previous months trying to water down and slow Parizeau's vision and strategy. When he succeeded Parizeau, Bouchard was in a position to impose his own watering down as leader and forego any promotion or action on sovereignty.
The fact is that Bouchard always was a traditional nationalist, who would gladly strike a more autonomist deal within Canada. Bouchard was and remains a Meech kind of a guy. Hence the war that's placed him against Parizeau's separatist vision for years.
In a 2002 documentary on the failure of Meech, Bouchard expressed the kind of heartfelt nostalgia no separatist would ever feel: "If Meech had passed, it would have been a great moment in the history of Canada and Brian Mulroney's name would have been associated with one of Canada's greatest successes."
Now, back to La Presse's front page. Given Bouchard's real politics - nationalist but not separatist - it's no surprise that some Quebec federalists enjoy the thought of such a charismatic leader returning with a softer-line agenda. That's why, contrary to what a Journal de Montreal columnist wrote yesterday, it isn't hard-liners who talk of his possible return. It's a very federalist paper that did, and even polled on it.
Still, chances are Bouchard will go on doing what he's been doing for the past four years - something few Pequistes know. Bouchard advises, on a very regular basis, both Landry and Gilles Duceppe, as well as a few others at the top of the PQ and the Bloc. These people hold the same position Bouchard did when he was leader: no commitment to hold a referendum.
Bouchard called it "winning conditions." Landry calls it the "moral certainty of winning." Duceppe calls it his "refusal to strategize in public." Plus ca change...
So there was really no need for a poll on Bouchard's return. Listening to what the current PQ leader or any of his potential successors says, it's as if Bouchard never left.