United States diplomats have another political hot spot to contemplate besides Poland, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Middle East: Quebec. What does the US do should the French-speaking province decide to separate from the rest of Canada?
Quebec separatism began boiling again last month when the federal government and the nine English-speaking provinces agreed on provisions for the patriation of Canada's Constitution from Great Britain. Quebec Premier Rene Levesque disagreed strongly with the terms of the deal. When he got back to Quebec City, he ordered that flags in the province be hung at half mast.
Mr. Levesque may have gone too far in his public denouncements of the agreement. Excited members of his own Parti Quebecois, noting their victory at the last provincial election, now are insisting that the province should move toward sovereignty immediately. Mr. Levesque wants to first negotiate an economic association with the rest of Canada. Feeling challenged, he has decided to put his leadership of the party to a vote by the party's rank and file.
Quebec-US economic and political relations were considered at a conference earel6l
lier this month of some 37 prominent French-Canadians, English-Canadians, and Americans - businessmen, public officials (including diplomats and politicians), and academics - in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. It was sponsored by the World Peace Foundation of Boston and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (EHEC) in Montreal.
To encourage frankness, the discussions were not to be attributed by name. But some of the conclusions are noteworthy:
1. Assuming Quebec and the remainder of Canada negotiate before political separation a customs union as part of an economic association, no substantial interests of the US would be affected. Trade and investment with Quebec would go on much as before separation.
However, the US government's position in Canada's internal dispute is one of ''neutrality in favor of unity.'' The United States would be saddened to see one of the few successful democracies in the world split apart. But its diplomats know that any attempt by the US to interfere in the dispute in favor of unity would undoubtedly backfire, exacerbating the situation. US diplomats in Ottawa are under instructions to ''stay off the balconies and never say 'vive' anything ,'' as one meeting participant put it. It was a reference to the ''Vive Quebec'' shouted by the late President de Gaulle during a visit to the province, a remark that prompted indignation in Ottawa over this interference in Canadian internal affairs.
One influential French-Canadian commented: ''We will likely stop before independence. Given the temper of our politics, any process will be gradual. . . . We are a cautious people. We are used to walking on ice in winter.''
In a 1980 plebescite Quebec voters rejected a ''sovereignty-association'' proposal of Levesque that involved greater political independence and continued economic ties. He has insisted that any such deal would be negotiated only after approval of Quebec voters, and presumably that promise stands should he remains premier after the current Parti Quebecois poll on his leadership.
2. Quebec is keen to develop enlarged business ties with the United States for both political and economic reasons.
Parti Quebecois, the separatist party that has been in power since 1976, believes improved economic relations with the US would give it greater political leverage in dealing with the federal regime in Ottawa. At the moment Quebec is highly dependent on markets in other Canadian provinces, especially Ontario, for its labor-intensive exports of such protected products as textiles, shoes, and furniture. A major reason Quebec voters rejected Levesque's ''sovereignty-association'' proposal was their fear that such an economic arrangement might not work out satisfactorily.
If the proportion of Quebec exports to the US increases substantially, Quebec would have a stronger hand in negotiating either separation or, more likely, greater provincial powers within the Canadian federation.
Further, Quebec needs the jobs that increased exports to the US or new American investment in Quebec can provide. The province has a high unemployment level now, and it could get worse. Over the next few years Quebec faces a reduction in tariff levels under the latest international trade agreement that will challenge severely its traditional labor-intensive industries. Quebec sees the United States as the prime source of the high tech industry that offers it the possibility of developing a more competitive manufacturing base.
3. Quebec's economic ties with the Northeastern United States are likely to grow, especially in the area of energy.
Negotiations are well advanced on the export of huge amounts of power developed by provincially owned Hydro Quebec to New York and New England.
If the Mt. Kisco conference was representative of current relations between most French-Canadians and English-Canadians, there remains strong hope for Canadian unity remaining intact. Said one veteran of such meetings: ''I have never heard such an open and good-humored discussion on these topics.'' French-Canadians feel more self-assured as they become increasingly masters of their own cultural and economic house. English-Canadians tend to be still offended by the treatment of their language in Quebec, but perhaps somewhat more understanding of French Canada's plight in sharing a continent with nearly 250 million English-speaking neighbors. Americans have become somewhat accustomed to their northern neighbor's major political, cultural and language division.