The separatist Parti Quebecois is in a crisis because hard-liners feel the leader has gone soft on separatism. Six Cabinet ministers and four backbenchers have resigned since last Thursday.
Premier Rene Levesque brought the Parti Quebecois (PQ) to power in November 1976 on a platform of good government and separatism, taking the French-speaking province of Quebec and breaking it away from Canada. The premier has since won another provincial election, but he lost the crucial referendum on separation. Only this week the PQ lost another by-election to the provincial Liberal Party. Their standing in the polls is low and Quebeckers - except for a hard core of 20 to 25 percent - appear to have rejected separatism.
The schism in the Parti Quebecois started a week and a half ago when Premier Levesque announced publicly what many had suspected - that he would not be fighting the next provincial election on separatism but on economic issues. The pragmatic Mr. Levesque had decided that if the PQ were to have a chance to come from behind to defeat the Liberals - who have a strong lead in the polls - the election was not going to be won on the issue on taking Quebec out of Canada.
That dose of Political reality was too much for many longtime Parti Quebecois Cabinet ministers and backbenchers. The man who led the exodus was Jacques Parizeau, the minister of finance who has held that post ever since November 1976. Mr. Parizeau has long been a supporter of the separatist movement and one of the pillars of the PQ government. His disgust with the abandonment of his ideal for an independent Quebec is so complete that he has resigned his seat in the National Assembly, Quebec's provincial legislature.
Another senior minister to quit the Cabinet is Camille Laurin, the language czar who was in charge of enforcing Bill 101, the law that tried - and in many ways succeeded - in making French the obligatory language of work and everyday life in Quebec. He thinks the issue of separatism - or sovereignty, as he and others call it - has been put off too long.
''After two elections where sovereignty was put on the back burner, another election where it was put aside would be an extinction of hope for the whole Quebec community.'' Or at least Dr. Laurin's vision of that ''community.''
The whole Quebec community, however, is not about to vote itself out of Canada. Far from it.
At the Sept. 4 federal election it voted overwhelmingly for Brian Mulroney, a staunch federalist and himself a bilingual Quebecker, though from the English-speaking minority.
When Dr. Laurin was asked what made Premier Levesque change his mind on sovereignty he curtly replied, ''the federal election.''
Separatism is a bad word in Quebec. Separatists prefer more indirect words, such as sovereignty or independence. There are still many in the Parti Quebecois who want to separate and they will be making loud noises at the PQ convention in January.
One of those will be Louise Harel, who has resigned as minister of cultural communities and immigration.
Miss Harel says she will keep her seat and try to rally pro-separatist forces within the Parti Quebecois.
The opposition Liberal party is gleeful; not only did they win a by-election this week but they smell a full blown provincial election because of the chaos with the Parti Quebecois.