Levesque takes campaign out on a limb

Premier Rene Levesque, the Quebec politician whose goal is to lead his province out of the Canadian federation, puts his political life on the line over the next four weeks.

Mr. Levesque recently called a provincial election for April 13, a vote that could be the last gasp of the independence movement in the French-speaking province. Or, it could mean a second chance for Mr. Levesque's PartI Quebecois.

The party came to power in 1976 dedicated to Quebec independence, but suffered a major setback last May when a province- wide referendum on the question of provincial separation went overwhelmingly against Mr. Levesque.

Despite having had 10 months to recover from the stunning blow his party suffered then, Mr. Levesque goes into the election as an underdog against Claude Ryan, who leads a provincial Liberal Party much- strengthed since its loss to the Parti Quebecois 4 1/2 years ago.

Mr. Ryan, as leader of the anti-independence forces in the campaign prior to the referendum last May, played a vital role in the defeat of Mr. Levesque's goal.

Relations between the two leaders have grown more antagonistic in the months since. Thus the short, 30-day campaign, as a head-on clash between these two men, promises to be one of the most combative political contests in recent Canadian history.

"It's going to be vicious," said one Ryan supporter. "Very dirty."

In an attempt to put the referendum defeat behind him, Mr. Levesque has placed his most cherished cause -- Quebec independence -- on the back burner for now. He has promised not to hold another independence referendum during a new term. But he has not ruled out a new provincial election at any time on the separation question.

Mr. Levesque will try to portray his party as the best defender of the province's cultural and economic interests. He will cite moves aimed at invigorating and modernizing the provincial economy.

The centerpiece of his cultural policies is Bill 101, which made French the official language of Quebec. Before it was passed, much business and other activities in the province had been conducted in english, the language of the minority.

"Until Bill 101," says Mr. Levesque, "no one dared to establish French in the place it deserves."

Mr. Levesque will also remind voters that his election promises of 1976 -- such as free medicines for the elderly and abolishing private fish and game clubs for the privileged -- have been kept.

Mr. Ryan is expected to mount a vigorous attack against Mr. Levesque's handling of the provincial purse, particularly the skyrocketing Quebec government's deficit to $12.5 billion.

"In the 110 years of confederation, Quebec accumulated a $4 billion deficit," Ryan said recently. "In only five years, the Parti Quebecois has tripled that."

superimposed on the Quebec election is the nationwide struggle over Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's attempt to set up a new Canadian constitution.

Because he is trying to do so without the consent of Canada's 10 powerful provincial premiers, eight of the provinces, including Quebec, are opposing Mr. Trudeau's constitutional proposals in the courts.

Among these proposals are minority language guarantees that, in the eyes of many Quebeckers, threaten to undermine the popular reforms contained in Bill 101 .

Mr. Levesque, who has long opposed Mr. Trudeau on numerous issues, will advertise himself as the leader best able to uphold Quebec's autonomy within Canada's federal system.

For Mr. Ryan, the constitutional and language questions are a political mine field: He opposes the ideas of his fellow Liberal, Mr. Trudeau, but cannot be seen to side at the same time with his provincial opponent, Mr. Levesque. His party is struggling to find a suitable middle ground to take before voters.

Dissatisfaction over Mr. Trudeau's single-minded handling of constitutional reform seems already to have helped Mr. Levesque. After last year's referendum defeat, most observers in the province thought he was on the way out with Quebec voters.

But the only opinion survey published in recent months shows Levesque and Ryan neck and neck. Mr. Levesque, who is the more popular personally with Quebeckers and the better campaigner of the two, thus may have a chance of overcoming last year's setback.

Mr. Ryan, however, whose party has won 11 straight provincial by-elections against the Parti Quebecois since 1976, is confident enough of his chances to disdain help from Mr. Trudeau's popular federal Liberals in this campaign.

"Frankly, we don't need them," he says. "We won 11 by-elections without them."

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