Quebeckers say 'non' to separatism but not to their uniqueness

Separatist fervor has clearly ebbed in this French-speaking part of Canada. ''We no longer see an independent Quebec as the answer to our problems,'' says a top journalist for one of Montreal's French-language newspapers. ''We know it will not work in today's world.

''But at the same time, make no mistake about it: Separatist ideals are still very much alive in this part of Canada, and there is a strong feeling that there is something different about Quebec which must be maintained.''

Another French-speaking Que-becker, banker Francois LeBlanc, adds: ''The big problem for us is to find ways to express that difference within our relationship with the rest of Canada.''

Such views are a far cry from the attitude of many French-speaking Que-beckers back in the mid-1970s, when Premier Rene Levesque came to power. That was seven years ago and the separatist tide was flowing mightily, threatening to tear Quebec out of the Canadian federation.

Premier Levesque, responding to the resentment many French-speaking Quebeckers felt about the way they and their French culture and language were treated by the rest of Canada, saw independence as the only way to assure they would not be treated as second-class citizens within the largely English-speaking Canadian nation.

Levesque's separatist rhetoric scared the rest of Canada. Ironically, it has come to scare many a Quebecker watching the province's economic fortunes decline as many Montreal-based businesses packed up their staffs and fled to Toronto or other major cities.

(The latest and one of the most telling examples was the November decision of the Bank of Montreal's chairman of the board to move his staff to Toronto, even though the bank's president remains in Montreal for the present.)

It is obvious that separatism's fortunes have declined with the declining economic climate here. Quebec, suffering like the rest of Canada from a nationwide recession, is more seriously battered than most provinces. Unemployment here is 13.5 percent, while the national tally shows 11.1 percent. Quebec's gross provincial product dropped 5.7 percent in 1982, twice as much as the rest of Canada.

In fact, ''the decline of separatism as a political goal is closely related to the decline in Quebec's economy,'' admits banker LeBlanc. ''Separatism as a social and cultural issue is not dead. We still want full recognition for our different culture.''

But no matter how it is explained, the blush is clearly off the separatist ideal.

Here are a few indications:

* Mr. Levesque's ruling Parti Quebecois, with separatism still its basic political goal, lost two more by-elections this month - bringing to 18 the number it has lost in a row since 1976.

* The party's membership rolls are down significantly - some 150,000 since 1981 - while Quebec's Liberal Party, headed again by former Premier Robert Bourassa, OK is making a spectacular comeback and probably would win a general election if it were held now.

* The small industrial town of Grande-Vallee, where unemployment has soared to 80 percent, petitioned the federal government in Ottawa for permission to secede from Quebec. Other towns with heavy jobless rolls are making noises about doing the same.

* New statistics show that the number of French-speaking Quebeckers (5 million out of 6 million people here) is barely increasing. Their growth rate is a mere 1.2 percent a year, almost the same as the English-speaking minority's 1. 1 percent growth.

Perhaps even more telling is the attitude expressed in the songs which young Quebeckers sing. Newspaperman Jean-Claude LeClerc of LeDevoir notes that at the popular night spots frequented by the French-speaking Quebec youth, ''the songs are those of love and friendship'' - a far cry from the patriotic themes written to ''nationalist tempos'' that were popular in the 1960s and '70s.

If all this has led to a decline in separatist fervor here, you would never know it listening to Mr. Levesque.

Conceding that Quebec nationalism may have taken a back seat, he maintains separatism lies just below the surface. He describes it as merely ''dormant.''

Commenting on the Parti Quebecois's poor showing in recent polls, he cites the normal midterm trough and the dismal world economy. ''I don't know of many governments that are exactly popular right now,'' he said in a recent press conference. He says he will not give up his goal of an independent and separate Quebec.

One of his top aides says that achieving independence ''is our ultimate goal.'' He adds, ''What we need to do, for example, is to raise the consciousness of those young people and make them realize that an independent Quebec is in their best interests.''

The opinion polls here suggest this will take some doing.

In a way, it can be argued that Levesque's success in calling attention to the separatist goal is partly responsible for the present mood among French-speaking Quebeckers. Many no longer feel their language is threatened. Some even call for a relaxation of the tough restrictions placed on English institutions and municipalities in Quebec.

For decades, the French-speaking Quebeckers were excluded from power in business and government. That is no longer the case - either here or elsewhere in largely English-speaking Canada. Many are now managers in business and bureaucrats in government.

Although Canada's Liberal Party has always been more popular here than the Progressive Conservatives, much is being made of the fact that the Conservatives are now led by Brian Mulroney, a Quebec-born, French-speaking member of Quebec's English community.

That means both national parties are currently led by Quebeckers (Liberal Pierre Trudeau, the current prime minister, being the other). That's a far cry from the way it was two decades ago.

All this showed up in a recent opinion poll on separatism. Some 72 percent of Quebec's French-speaking majority voted ''non'' to the idea.

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