Nothing grates on the nerves of some English Canadians more than the special relation that Quebec has with France. Once again, angry feelings surfaced in the media when, pressed by a Radio-Canada reporter, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate for the French presidential election, mouthed somewhat awkward support for Quebec "sovereignty and freedom." (Actually, she backtracked the following day, and the incident only served to emphasize the lack of savvy of Ms. Royal when it comes to international affairs.)
Forget sovereignty. France is as important for Quebec federalists as it is for sovereigntists. Paris is the only world capital where Quebec politicians have easy access to all the political leaders, notwithstanding their political affiliation. Premier Jean Charest, certainly not a separatist, has close relations with his French counterparts, as did all his predecessors. Canadians should relax and accept this as a reality that will not vanish. And why should it?
For most Quebeckers, France is more than the mother country, it is the major homeland of the language that French Canadians so patiently kept and nurtured in the North American English ocean. Just like Canadian Jews have a special relationship with Israel (albeit for very different reasons), Quebeckers will always have a special relationship with France. Alas, sometimes I suspect our fellow Canadians of being quite prejudiced against France.
For instance, nobody in the Canadian media ever raised an eyebrow over the fact that former Liberal leader John Turner was a British citizen (he was born in the UK), but Stéphane Dion's double citizenship (inherited from his French mother) provoked an outcry that lasted for a week, with many voices claiming that he should give up his French citizenship. Obviously, the double standard rested on the view that the loyalty to Canada of a British citizen is guaranteed while that of a French citizen is not. (The irony was that the suspicion was directed against a man, Mr. Dion, who had already proved his unflinching loyalty to Canada).
Of course, sovereigntists have their own agenda. They've always hoped that because of the historical and cultural ties that bind them, France would be the first country to officially recognize Quebec after a referendum victory. And, indeed, several senior French politicians, from Charles de Gaulle to former prime minister Michel Rocard, publicly supported the idea of Quebec independence.
But France has its own interests. Besides its emotional ties to its North American cousins, it has close political and economic links with Canada - links that are actually becoming stronger, thanks in part to the Canadian embassy in Paris. Its shrewd marketing, aimed at senior journalists from major publications, completely changed the image of Canada in the French media. Now, in France, Canada is not limited to Quebec, and the French media discovered the whole country, from Newfoundland to Calgary and Vancouver. Canada is seen as a progressive, efficient society that can serve as a model for France in many areas, from the integration of immigrants, to the justice system, to public finance and so on.
France would probably be among the very first countries (along with the rest of Canada!) to recognize a sovereign Quebec, if the Yes side won a referendum by a wide margin. But in the case of a close referendum victory, France would probably be reluctant to act. In any case, the issue of Quebec sovereignty has lost the appeal it had in France 20 years ago. Quebec is better known there than ever but, generally speaking, the French are not interested in the issue of Quebec sovereignty, if only because they have the feeling that after 30 years of fruitless efforts, the sovereigntist movement is going nowhere.
Quebec sovereignty has become such a minor issue in France, Ms. Royal didn't seem to know that the word "sovereignty," when applied to Quebec, is a synonym for secession. Now she says that what she meant is that Quebeckers are "sovereign and free" because they have the right to vote on their future - a platitude if there ever was one.