Quebec leader shelves separatism . . . for time being

Premier Rene Levesque has served notice on Canadians that they can put aside their fears of Quebec separatism for a few years.

But at the same time he has strengthened his party's commitment to the ultimate goal of creating a French-speaking nation independent of Canada.

These developments emerged as Levesque, who not long ago threatened to resign as head of the independence-minded Parti Quebecois, successfully fought off a recent revolt by militant separatists within the ranks of his own backers.

At a party convention this past weekend in Montreal and in a recent internal party mail-in vote, Levesque received the broad support he was seeking to defy the radicals, who favor concrete moves toward Quebec independence. ''I think the party has put itself back on track,'' said Mr. Levesque after the convention. It is clear to almost everyone, he said, that the recent revolt by the militants ''was an unbalancing'' of years of effort by the Parti Quebecois.

Since coming to power in 1976 in the province that is home to most of the country's French-Canadians, Levesque has been espousing his view that Quebeckers would be better off culturally and economically outside the Canadian federation. But his search for a mandate to do this floundered in May 1979, when his proposal to begin the movement toward independence was defeated in a landmark referendum vote in the province.

After that, Levesque adopted a go-slow approach to independence, a decision that helped him win re-election as premier last spring. Party militants, who want Levesque to move unwaveringly toward independence, went on the offensive last November when Quebec found itself odd-man-out in an historic agreement on a new Canadian constitution.

The agreement, the culmination of years of often-bitter federal-provincial negotiations, was forged in a last-minute compromise between the Canadian government and Canada's nine English-speaking provinces. Amid cries of betrayal, militant separatists in Quebec said their province's isolation in the constitutional accord was the final proof that French Canada had no choice but to secede.

In a party conference in December, the militant wing voted to throw out a longstanding tenet in Mr. Levesque's plan for separatism -- that Quebec independence should be coupled with an economic association with the rest of Canada along the lines of the European Community.

Levesque, who appears to believe that Quebeckers are for now more interested in economic problems than politics, resisted the militants, saying he would leave the party if drastic separatist action was forced on him.

To head off the radicals, Mr. Levesque scheduled a mail-in vote last month among his party's 290,000 members. About half of the party voted, with 95 percent of the ballots favoring Mr. Levesque's position.

Armed with these results, Mr. Levesque reasserted his control of the party at last weekend's convention attended by 1,700 delegates in Montreal. At the same time, Mr. Levesque solidified his future commitment to the goal of independence.

He said the Parti Quebecois would make independence the central issue in the next provincial election.

All these developments leave Mr. Levesque firmly in charge until the next election, when he will once again have to test the willingness of Quebeckers to take the economic and emotional risks of breaking up the Canadian federal system.

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