If columnists got $10 for every time in the last 40 years that the sovereignist movement was branded as intolerant, or worse, we'd probably be as rich as Power Corp's Paul Desmarais.
But when French President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to the sovereignty movement as "sectarian" and "hateful of others," it was another story. It came from the head of a major western state, which also happens to be Quebec's closest ally historically and culturally.
Realpolitik might well dictate that without a referendum in sight, any president might consider France's interests to include keeping a good rapport with Ottawa. But this could have been achieved without Sarkozy reneging on France's policy of non-interference and non-indifference on the issue of sovereignty.
Sarkozy could have cozied up to Ottawa without clearly stating his opposition to Quebec sovereignty and insulting those who support it.
In doing that, Sarkozy created what can only be termed a diplomatic incident. He openly insulted at least 40 per cent of Quebecers, as well as two provincial parties and a federal one. When Sarkozy spoke after he'd handed Jean Charest his Légion d'honneur, he put his written text aside. Warning everyone that he was about to tackle a "taboo," he said the word "hate" four times. The infamous abrasive Sarkozian style is one thing. But he knew what he was saying when he used such loaded words.
So yesterday, Pauline Marois and Gilles Duceppe held a joint press conference and released a letter they sent to Sarkozy. It was an exceptional move that reflected the equally exceptional nature of the president's words. It will now be interesting to see how, or if, Sarkozy will respond or if he'll soften his controversial statement in atonement.
Much has been said and written about Sarko's friendship with Power Corp.'s Desmarais. Considered one of his mentors, Desmarais is surely the most powerful and internationally influential Canadian federalist alive. But he also happens to be known for having little respect for the sovereignist movement. Last year in an interview with the French magazine Le Point, he even said that if Quebec separated, "it would mean the end." Whatever that meant.
So close in fact are these two men that last spring, Sarkozy awarded Desmarais the highest grade of the Légion d'honneur: the Grand-Croix. In comparison, Charest, like his predecessors, received a lower grade. But Desmarais was nearby in the crowd.
It was fascinating to watch Sarkozy, standing in front of his mentor, lay it on so thick almost as if he was saying to Desmarais: "You see, I can put them in their place, too!" Mind you, if you look at what Sarkozy said in public about sovereignists, one wonders how much worse it gets between these men in private.
Yesterday, Marois said that when Charest insisted afterward in Paris that he had respect for sovereignists, the premier had the "right reaction." Her point was that it would have been difficult for the premier to receive his Légion d'honneur while contradicting the French president to his face. But Charest had to know right away the effect Sarkozy's words would have back home.
For Marois, this episode will help her do what she hasn't been able to do so far: Bring sovereignty back, at least for a while, as a topic of discussion. But for the sovereignty option, the story remains the same: It is the PQ leader who holds the key to whether or not the party commits to attaining its goal when it gets back into power. What Sarkozy's latest sortie says to the PQ though is that in the eyes of much of the outside world, it's been so mute about sovereignty that independence is no longer seen as a likely outcome.
The final irony is that while Desmarais and Ottawa foster a closer relation with France and applaud the provocative statements of its current president, the new fashion in some federalist circles is to say that Quebec's own rapport with France is simply passé. And that paying attention to its politicians is somehow an outdated obsession.