In an ironic twist, Rene Levesque's popular success as Quebec premier since 1976 may well prove the greatest obstacle to achieving his central aim: leading Canada's largest province to a separate sovereignty.
For Mr. Levesque's social and economic reforms have not only helped boost him to a 60-plus percent popularity in Quebec opinion polls; they have also suggested to many Quebeckers that this largest French-speaking group outside France can prosper within English-speaking Canada.
In the May 20 referendum, Mr. Levesque is looking for a mandate to negotiate a separate Quebec tempered by "common market" ties with Canada. He is putting at stake the "last great ambition" of his 20-year drive: to make Quebec "egal a egal" (equal to equal) with the other nine provinces of Canada by making it a separate nation.
But in his media-oriented campaign, the ex-television commentator has fed the emotions of Quebec nationalism by pointing to his legislative successes as well as berating federal controls on the province. And, by showing that Quebec can be ably governed within Canada, his Parti Quebecois (PQ) may have damaged more than helped the separatist cause.
Mr. Levesque is especially noted for achieving a new agricultural law, no-fault insurance, a giant supply of exportable hydroelectricity, campaign finance reform, quick settlements of strikes, popular tax and fiscal controls, and promotion of the use of French in all businesses. These and various other measures are seen by PQ supporters as indicating that Quebec's "quiet revolution" has yielded effective leadership for the province after more than a century of domination by the English-speaking minority.
But, coupled with recent cries from western provinces in Canada for less federal control over natural resources, Mr. Levesque's campaign for cultural separation has become blurred with a grab for more regional power. In fact, some PQ ministers encouraged voters to vote "yes" for negotiations on "sovereignty-association" simply as a "bargaining lever" for talks expected this summer on rewriting the federal Constitution.
"The question is whether Quebec is just another province fighting for more regional power from the federal government, or whether its people will be treated as just another minority," says Jean-Louis Roy, McGill University specialist on Quebec and author of "The Choice of a Country."
After his surprise victory in 1976 with 41 percent of the vote -- only a decade after forming the secessionist Parti Quebecois -- the widely respected Mr. Levesque found that, once in power, the party's left-wing elements as well as its drive for independence moderated.
Faced with this and with a shift in public opinion, Premier Levesque was forced to soften the proposed referendum's wording last year from a mandate to secede to one of asking for a mandate to negotiate for "sovereignty-association" with a shared currency.
Mr. Levesque has said he would hang up his political career if the "yes" votes are less than 40 percent of referendum results -- indicating rejection by a majority of both non-French and French speakers. On the other hand, he has stated that a simple majority win for his cause would eventually force Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to negotiate for "sovereignty-association" or face a second referendum directly on independence after a general provincial election.
What Mr. Levesque has tried to avoid is a result in between these positions: a "no" vote victory somewhere between 50 and 59 percent. This would imply that the English-speaking minority that makes up 20 percent of Quebec had thwarted the wishes of the French-speaking majority -- and could cause frustration and possible violence.