MONTREAL — BACK off - at least for now. That's the message Quebec's new separatist premier is sending hard-line members of his Parti Quebecois (PQ) who are demanding tougher language laws to promote the use of French.
Lucien Bouchard is moving quickly to defuse what could be another acrimonious battle between the province's majority French speakers and minority English speakers.
''We have to stop being motivated by our old demons in this debate,'' Mr. Bouchard told a recent meeting of the PQ, asking for an end to a showdown between the 82 percent of the province's population who speak French and the rest who speak mainly English. ''It's not true that linguistic rights are a game in which you score points,'' Bouchard said.
Bouchard was reacting to a report on the state of the French language in Quebec. He is trying to steer hard-liners away from a language debate so he can deal with Quebec's economy.
The report, sponsored by Quebec's government, paints a bleak picture of the French language in Quebec, saying it is under threat, especially in Montreal. The report says French is still not the common language in Montreal and criticizes the Quebec government for sloppy enforcement of laws to promote the French language. It also complains that immigrants are not integrating into the French community.
Many French-speaking Quebeckers, and not just separatists, worry about the constant threat to the French language. They see Quebec as a French island in the English sea of North America.
Many small-business people here are glad Bouchard is not taking the same tough stance as those who want to tighten laws that now ban English on signs and in large companies, even English in interoffice memos. A man who attended law school with Bouchard recalls that Bouchard had never exhibited any anti-English feelings when he knew him. Indeed, he is married to an American.
In Montreal, George Alevisatos, hopes the language ruckus calms down. ''I can live with the rules we have now, but business needs a breather. The English people living here now know French. We don't need another debate on language,'' he says wearily.
Mr. Alevisatos and his family have been in the restaurant business on Greene Avenue in the central Montreal district of Westmount since 1921. The language law passed in 1977, Bill 101, forced them to change the names on their signs at the restaurant, once known as Nick's, to Chez Nick.
''I've had a lot of letters from the 'Office,' '' says Alevisatos opening a file. The Office (always pronounced with a French accent by English-speaking Quebecers) refers to the L'Office de la Langue Francaise - the Office of the French Language - which regulates whether a word or even an apostrophe should come off a French sign.
Interrupted by a telephone call, he answers, ''By George, bonjour.''
Outside, his sign is bilingual. It should be only in French. ''Traiteur By George Caterer. Dupuis 1921 Since.'' When the ungrammatical nature of the sign is pointed out, he says. ''I always put French first.''
While many welcome the truce in Quebec's language law, some criticize Bouchard for shoving the language debate aside while he deals with the economy. Quebec has a huge debt, high unemployment, and slow growth.
''It's the lull before the storm,'' says Harold Angell, a professor at Concordia University, an English-language institution in Montreal. ''The report says French is stagnating ... That means the PQ wants to strengthen French. The only way to do that is to weaken English. It's a zero-sum game.
''It means young English-speaking people suffer in the job market,'' Mr. Angell says. ''In my own circle of family and friends, my son has left. The children of many of my friends have left for Toronto and points further west and the United States. Young people know there is little work for non-French speakers here.''