With separatists divided over the meaning of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's pitch for Canadian unity, and some federalists crowing that it's a vindication, Premier Jean Charest warned last night against making partisan use of the comments.
"We should not be doing this," Charest said.
"We are equal, and when we receive the president of the French republic, who speaks of our relationship, we should do it with great openness and not try to recoup it to our advantage.
"We need to get out of this line of thinking. I'm not trying to use or instrumentalize Mr. Sarkozy in one way or the other. It's for us to determine what our future is." At the end of a chaotic day of "he said, she said" on the sidelines of the Francophonie summit, Charest waded in with his own interpretation of what transpired Friday when Sarkozy made what has been viewed as one of the strongest pitches for Canadian unity in recent history by a top French leader.
On his way into the opening of a new francophone museum in old Quebec City, Charest said too many sovereignists are trying to make the France-Quebec relationship into something it no longer is.
"We don't need to ask for permission from the French people," Charest said, standing on the sidewalk at the entrance. "On the contrary, we are equal. In that sense, I think the French president spoke with great eloquence of a relationship where Quebec has its place.
"There are many sovereignists who are more and more confused and more and more isolated. If you ask me if the sovereignist movement is going to disappear in Quebec, I would say there will always be people who will be prone this choice, and we have to respect it.
"But what I see in 2008 is great confusion in the sovereignist ranks and greater and greater isolation. There are sovereignists whom I still see who think we have to go and get a kind of approval from France, or permission or blessing about the future of Quebec." And with Sarkozy himself long gone, having slipped out of the country at noon on his way to the United States, the confusion left in his wake was palpable - on both sides of the debate. While many sovereignists initially welcomed the message the French president delivered in the National Assembly - former Parti Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard said it was "inspiring and beautiful" - other comments by Sarkozy riled some sovereignists, including former PQ leader Jacques Parizeau, who described Sarkozy's pitch as an attack on the movement.
Others, however, tried to downplay the remarks, ignore them or simply dismiss them as a sign that Sarkozy does not understand their ambitions.
"Mr. Sarkozy has perhaps misunderstood our project," said PQ leader Pauline Marois, who is attending the summit. "Did he want to talk about division owing to the financial crisis?" she asked. "Maybe he does not understand the Quebec people's sovereignty project, which, on the contrary, is a very inclusive project, open to the world and modern.
"People for decades around the world have given themselves countries, and I think Mr. Sarkozy rejoiced." Marois said that what was important during Sarkozy's visit was his speech in the National Assembly, where, she said, the president made a "solemn declaration" that he wants a privileged - one-on-one and equal - relationship with Quebec.
Marois said Sarkozy recognized the Quebec nation with its unique identity, language and culture. "In this sense, I think it is a very positive declaration that recognizes us," she said.
She glossed over what Sarkozy said on Friday at a news conference at the Quebec City Citadelle flanked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Sarkozy made it clear - based on most interpretations of his remarks - that he preferred a united Canada.
His key phrase was: "Frankly, if someone would like to tell me that the world today needs an additional division, we do not have the same reading of the world." Sarkozy did not use the same wording in the legislature, where top sovereignist leaders - including Marois and former PQ leader Bernard Landry - were in attendance.
While Marois remained diplomatic, Parizeau was furious, calling Sarkozy's remarks at the Citadelle "astounding." "It is a very ancient judgment on the sovereignty of Quebec," Parizeau said in Montreal. "This is to say, 'We do not agree with the sovereignty of Quebec. We accept other divisions around the world, but not this one.' "I don't recall ever having seen a state leader say this during all the big debates on Quebec sovereignty, during the entire referendum campaign." Landry fired back as well, in an interview with Radio-Canada, demanding that Sarkozy immediately clarify his statement at the news conference.
"I hope the president of the republic expressed himself poorly and that it is not the way he actually thinks," Landry said. "If the president of the French republic came and interfered in our affairs and took a position against the independence of Quebec, well, then it is extremely serious.
"I hope this is not it. This same president of the French republic greeted - and enthusiastically is the least you can say - the independence of Kosovo and he recognized that of Montenegro. If he loves us, let us go toward our destiny.
"It is not up to France to decide - it's Quebec." Landry said he hopes Sarkozy didn't violate the traditional French policy of non-interference toward Quebec, and said "the burden of proof" rests on his shoulders.
Asked about Parizeau's outburst over the remarks, Marois said: "Some people have a - how would you say? - blunter interpretation.
"It's clear, if Mr. Sarkozy's references to a divisive project refer to the sovereignty project, it's simply not the case." Former PQ cabinet member Louise Beaudoin, who first met Sarkozy when she was Quebec's international relations minister, also soft-pedalled the remarks, saying whatever the French president says now, if Quebecers were to choose sovereignty, France would recognize the province as an independent country.
"There is a variable geometry to the French policy," Beaudoin said in an interview. "They adjust - that is realpolitik." Beaudoin argued that too much importance is being given to Sarkozy's comment. "We can't ask him to be more Catholic than the pope," she said, noting that the PQ is not in power and there is no referendum on the horizon.
"The day Quebecers decide to be sovereign, notwithstanding the Clarity Act, by 50 per cent plus one, I'm telling you, France will recognize Quebec," she said. "It seems so obvious to me. They recognized Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova and I don't know who else.
"Sarkozy is a very pragmatic man. He changes his mind. He was an excessive neo-liberal and now he wants to reform capitalism because there is a crisis.
"Before 2002, the only other Quebecer Nicolas Sarkozy knew was Paul Desmarais," Beaudoin said, referring to the Montreal billionaire whose Power Corp. of Canada and Power Financial Corp. have holdings in Canada and Europe.
"He said, 'I have a vision that is obviously coloured by a friendship that is unconditional for the Desmarais family,' " Beaudoin recounted. "I said to him, 'Mr. Sarkozy, that is very well, but will you listen to the other side?'" Beaudoin said she detects a shift in Sarkozy's position already, noting that from putting relations with Quebec and Canada on an equal footing, he now speaks of "family ties" with Quebec and "friendship" with Canada. "But his opinion will not be the opinion of France when the day comes," she said.
Some federalists, however, were spinning the comments just as hard the other way.
One of the first out of the gate was Federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, also on hand at the summit.
"He indicated it's better to sow then un-sow," Cannon said. "We're triumphant." "As a Canadian, I was happy to see we could make some progress in Canadian unity and, as Quebecers, without any confrontation," Canadian Heritage Minister Josée Verner said.
Charest's international relations minister, Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, also hopped aboard, saying Sarkozy's comments prove it is time to move beyond the old sovereignty-federalism debate and the days when Quebec felt it needed to be told "I love you" by France.
Asked if it is a setback for the sovereignty movement, Gagnon-Tremblay said Marois is not talking about a new referendum and the Bloc Québécois did not campaign on sovereignty in the recent federal election.
"There will always be people who will continue to dream of it, but for me I am a federalist and for me it is over," she said.
But a few hours later, provincial Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benôit Pelletier, a more senior minister when it comes to this pivotal issue, arrived at the summit and tried to calm things down.
Without mentioning the key passage in Sarkozy's remarks at the Citadelle, Pelletier said that what mattered was the stronger recognition of Quebec's identity by France.
Asked about Sarkozy's remarks, Pelletier said: "There is probably a realigning of the French strategy. We see it. There is a new president and he wants to present a new policy that is his own.
"But we see how well-balanced this speech is.
"On the one hand, the interest in Canada, which is a major partner for France and the European Union. I am not here to interpret the speech, there are many interpretations. What I retain is, there is a rapprochement of France to Canada.
"At the same time, there is a reminder of the sincere links France has with Quebec.
"And the important part of the trip was undoubtedly the speech to the National Assembly. I don't think the president wanted to commit any mistake whatsoever. He is a seasoned diplomat. It is possible Mr. Sarkozy has a penchant for Canadian unity, but if that's the case, let's wait until he says it clearly."
Sarkozy has separatists in a tizzy
Pitch for Unity. French president's remarks 'astounding,' Parizeau says