Premier Rene Levesque, whose Quebec independence movement was not long ago seen as a dire threat to Canada's future, now seems unlikely to win a provincial election expected early in 1981.
The apparent decline in mr. Levesque's fortunes has gone largely unremarkable by Canadians outside Quebec. In a matter of months, most of the country has turned its attention from the restless French-speaking province to a series of wrenching internal political dispute highlighted by a new spirit of rebellion in western Canada.
Mr. Levesque's departure from the national spotlight coincided with a general wave of relief about Quebec among Canadians last summer. This came after Quebeckers decisively voted down a Levesque government plan for provincial independence in an historic referendum. The vote result was a major defeat for the Parti Quebecois, which swept to power under Mr. Levesque in 1976 with a commitment to lead the province out of the Canadian federation.
After the referendum, Mr. Levesque conceded that the question of his province's separation should for the moment be dropped from the political agenda. Then he se about trying to regroup his dispirited and splintered Parti Quebecois forces.
But the combative journalist-turned-politiccian has been unable to arrest the apparent slide in party's popularity. Mr. Levesque, political observers say, has suffered from widespread public dissatisfaction over his govenment's ambitious attempts to expand social services in the province. the new programs have sustained the Quebec government's finances to the breaking point, raising the specter of tax increases in the near future.
Recently the Levesque government, which was prided itlself on a scandal-tree record, even had to endure public revelation of questionable contract-letting activities by senior officials.
during its four years in power, the Parti Quebecois has lost 11 straight by-elections. After losing the referendum last May, Mr. Levesque had been expected to call a provin cial election in the fall. But the vote was put off, with Mr. Levesque arguing that the province should instead devote its attention to fighting Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's controversial drive to install a new Canadian constitution without provincial consent.
The prevailing view is that Mr. Levesque was in reality playing for time, hoping his chances of being reelected would improve by winter. The Parti Quebecois is expected to go to the polls in the early months of 1981, though the election could legally be put off until as late as next fall.
Mr. Levesque's fall from grace was dramatically underscored during a recent trip he made to France. In 1977, when Mr. Levesque seemed at the height of his power and Quebec seemed well on the way toward independence, he had paid a triumphant visit to Paris. The awards, the speech to the National Assembly, and the broad hints of French support for an independent Quebec that marked that visit were glaringly absent in his Dec. 14-16 visit.
Instead of veiled promises of support for French-Canadian nationalist aspirations, France this time steered well clear of the clash between Ottawa and Quebec.
Premier Raymond Barre said: "The French policy about Canadian problems is a policy of noninterference. We think the problems that we discussed with Mr. Levesque [about his constitutional struggles] are problems which interest directly Canadians, and our line of policy is not to interfere in Canadian Affairs."
Both in his statements in France and at home, Mr. Levesque has continued his vigorous effort to build a groundswell of support within Quebec for his challenge to Mr. Trudeau's constitutional proposals.
Mr. Trudeau intends to "bring home" Canada's constitution from Britain, where it exists in the form of an 1867 act of the British Parliament. Included would be a new bill of rights and other measures staunchly opposed by many of the provinces, including Quebec.
In France, Mr. Levesque described Mr. Trudeau's constitutional plans as "scandalous," "infamous," and "repugnant." At home, he has said the proposals amount to a "coup d'etat."
But Mr. Levesque's attempts to turn this issue to his advantage in Quebec has foundered on Trudeau's immense popularity among his fellow French-Canadians. In the last national election, Mr. Trudeau's Liberal Party captured 73 of 75 seats in the province, and there is no sign of an erosion of support.
The benefactor of Mr. Levesque's misfortunes will probably be Claude Ryan, leader of the provincial Liberal Party. Mr. Ryan played a major role in the successful campaign last spring to win voters away from Mr. Levesque's proposals for independence. Though personally less popular than Mr. Levesque among Quebeckers, Mr. Ryan is expected to be carried into office sometime in 1981 on the tide of a liberal resurgence in provincial politics.