Quebec's French connection

Quebecers are used to the subtlety of French diplomacy, not the in-your-face proclamations of Sarkozy

Sarko décore Charest - février 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy delivers his speech this week, while Jean Charest listens.

Nicolas Sarkozy delivers his speech this week, while Jean Charest listens.
Early in the referendum year of 1995, Jacques Parizeau, who was then Parti Québécois premier, visited Paris to line up quick recognition by France of a unilateral declaration of Quebec independence.
During the visit, great significance was read into which entrance Parizeau used at the French National Assembly, and the type of paper on which a routine agreement between the French and Quebec governments was written.
Such is the subtlety of French diplomacy, in which every gesture has meaning and every word is carefully weighed.
But that's not the style of the current French president. Soon after Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, he blurted to a citizen who refused to shake his hand: "Casse-toi, alors, pauvre con, va"- So get lost, then, you poor jerk.
So when, during a ceremony honouring Premier Jean Charest this week, Sarkozy departed from his prepared text for some improvised riffing on France-Quebec relations, one can imagine a sharp intake of breath on the part of the French diplomats in attendance.
And it might have been some time before they exhaled. True to form, Sarkozy proceeded to demolish whatever was left of the long-standing French policy of "neither indifference nor interference"- nicknamed "ni-ni" - on Quebec secession after his endorsement of Canadian unity at Quebec's National Assembly last year.
On that occasion, he said, he had noticed "spontaneous smiles" as well as "smiles that were a bit less smiles," apparently referring to the reaction of Parti Québécois MNAs.
Although he had been advised against "touching a taboo," he dismissed "ni-ni" offhandedly as "honestly, not my thing."
He asked whether "the world, in the unprecedented crisis through which it is going, needs division, needs detestation?"
He said that in order to love Quebec, France did not need to detest Canada. Rather, France rejected "sectarianism," "division," "closing in on oneself" and "this obligation to define one's identity through fierce opposition to the other.
"If our identity is strong," he concluded," we don't need to be aggressive."
Sarkozy's remarks left no room for interpretation. Proof of that was the immediate, furious reaction of sovereignists at what they felt was a betrayal by an ally they had been courting for more than 30 years.
Two years after the 1995 referendum, Parizeau revealed that his visit to Paris was part of a strategy he called "the great game." It was based on the hope that quick French recognition of a Quebec unilateral declaration of independence would put pressure on the United States to follow suit.
Some sovereignists insinuated that Sarkozy had been unduly influenced by his friend, Quebec federalist businessman Paul Desmarais, who was present when Sarkozy made his remarks at the ceremony at which he made Charest a commandeur of the Légion d'Honneur.
The guest of honour, who did not want to offend either Sarkozy or the nearly 50 per cent of Quebec electors who voted Yes in the 1995 referendum, appeared embarrassed. His reaction was so ambiguous that it lent itself to different interpretations in different Quebec newspapers.
Even some Quebec federalists thought that Sarkozy, in alluding to the "sectarianism" and "detestation" of their adversaries, had gone too far. One of them was André Pratte, chief editorialist for Desmarais's newspaper La Presse.
And it's the sovereignists who won't let Sarkozy's remarks be forgotten, in the apparent hope that another betrayal, even by a French president, will mobilize their movement.
Yesterday's Quebec newspapers carried excerpts from a four-page letter of protest made public the day before by sovereignist leaders Pauline Marois of the PQ and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois.
Anyway, the PQ will not be back in power, and therefore in a position to hold another sovereignty referendum, before 2012, when Sarkozy's term in office ends. The sovereignists can hope that Sarkozy will then be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their cause. As the PQ official opposition's critic for international relations, Louise Beaudoin, noted this week, they still have other friends in France.

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