Sovereignists are off to a shaky start as they scramble to recover from their disastrous March 26 defeat in Quebec's provincial election. Premier Jean Charest's Liberals and Mario Dumont's Action Democratique trounced the Parti Quebecois under Andre Boisclair. The PQ ran third, its most dismal showing yet.
Yet the chaotic race to replace Boisclair, who was forced out last week, has plunged the sovereignty movement into even deeper disarray.
In Ottawa, the standard-bearer for separatism on Parliament Hill, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, made a laughing stock of himself this weekend, and sapped his party's credibility, with his farcically short-lived run for the provincial party leadership.
Duceppe boldly tossed his hat into the ring Friday evening "without checking correctly the objective conditions," as he put it yesterday with exquisite, tortured understatement. On Saturday he woke up to a poll showing Quebecers prefer Pauline Marois as PQ leader by a 2 to 1 margin. She is a veteran PQ cabinet minister and party icon. And the PQ caucus was even more solidly in her camp. So Duceppe fled back to the Bloc, making himself the butt of jokes by federalists and separatists alike.
With Duceppe no longer a contender, Marois seems destined to be third time lucky in her leadership aspirations, having lost out in 1985 and 2005. A pragmatist, she aims to rebrand the PQ as the party of good government as Rene Levesque did in 1976, and of Quebec's French identity, hoping to regain power and to prepare a referendum. So nothing changes there.
But any rejoicing in PQ ranks at Marois' surge has been tempered by her first, bleak message as leader-in-waiting.
While Marois mouths the PQ credo that renouncing the dream of statehood "would be to lose our soul," she knows Quebecers "are not prepared to hold a referendum on sovereignty now." So it's on the back burner.
"Time and energy spent debating the mechanics is time and energy not dedicated to convincing people of the need for sovereignty," she cautions.
In other words: Get back to the drawing board, folks, because five PQ premiers from Levesque on haven't managed to sell independence. This will be an unpalatable truth for PQ hard-liners to accept; they howled down Boisclair when he tried to make much the same point, and forced him to commit to an early referendum, with fatal election results.
But a recent CROP poll found that 58 per cent of Quebecers would reject sovereignty, even if it were softened by some kind of partnership with the rest of the country. That reluctance to countenance even a "virtual" break is a tribute to Canada's success as a prosperous, tolerant society that affirms Quebec's francophone identity.
The PQ will have a hard time reversing Quebec sentiment, under Marois or any other current figure. Once again, the sovereignist movement is twisting itself into knots changing the messenger, when it is the message itself that people are rejecting.