Politics used to spark the fiercest talk in Quebec. Late-night conversations in Montreal and Quebec City turned on language, social justice, and the need for Quebeckers to shape their own destiny. But that was nine years ago when the French-speaking province not only toyed with the idea of starting a new country, but also actually elected a separatist government.
Today, going to business school gains more kudos than studying sociology. The bearded intellectual in wire-rim glasses has been replaced by the clean-cut kid with a briefcase.
``Quebec, Yuppie style,'' quips Lysianne Gagnon, a columnist for the Montreal newspaper La Presse.
Separatism is dead in Quebec.
The young people who supported the separatist cause in the 1960s and '70s are the same generation that battled the Vietnam war in the United States. They are now middle-aged, and they do not have the support of the young generation.
One of the big reasons is jobs. Unemployment in the province is at 12.8 percent, above the national average of 11.3 percent. In some regions such as the Eastern Townships, which rely on old industries such as textiles and shoes, the rate can hit 20 percent.
Claude Charron was a Cabinet minister in the Parti Qu'eb'ecois government. A bright young man, when he graduated from the University of Montreal in the '60s he could pick and choose his work. Today's young Quebeckers have a hard time pushing aside the generation that came before them, he says.
``How can they share our dreams?'' he asks. ``And when we go to explain how they should drive their own lives the way we did, they say, `Drop dead.' ''
Because it has lost the support of young people, the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois has little chance of winning the next provincial election, which will probably come this fall. It has lost every by-election since it came to power in November of 1976, although it won provincial reeclection in 1981.
Taking Quebec out of Canada, making it an independent country, was the dream that fueled the separatist movement that flowered in the 1960s.
There have always been degrees of separatism; the hard core wanted a truly separate country, while the pragmatists leaned to ``sovereignty-association,'' a fuzzy phrase meaning the province would still have an economic union with Canada.
Many of the battles have been fought and won. Anyone visiting Quebec today can see that French-speaking Quebeckers now have much of what separatism promised.
The big issue in Quebec is -- and always has been -- the French language and culture. There are 6.2 million people in Quebec and all but 1 million (16 percent of the population) of them speak French -- all day everyday. About 60 percent of the population speaks French only, with barely a word of English.
Twenty years ago the big fear was that the use of French in Quebec was going to die out. Young nationalists such as Pierre-Marc Johnson felt a need for change and it was based on language.
``When I was a student in the early '60s, one of the big things we did on Saturday night about politics was going out to Murray's Restaurant and putting down an English-French dictionary as a tip,'' Mr. Johnson says. ``That's not true anymore. Quebec is not that anymore. When you go to Murray's, you don't feel threatened because you'll be answered in French at Murray's.''
The big change in Quebec language law was Bill 101, which was adopted in 1977. It gave Quebeckers the right to work in French, but it also contained many petty articles. One banned English signs. The law prohibited English-speaking parents from sending their children to school in English unless one of the parents had attended a similar school in Quebec.
Many of the clauses of Bill 101 have been struck down by the courts.
One of the ironies of the law is that English-speaking children are becoming more bilingual than French students.
A decade ago in Montreal there was real animosity toward English-speaking residents. Now much of that is gone. The new generation is confident and really has no reason to object to the use of the English language.
There are plays in Montreal in which English is used freely. This would have been unheard of in the '60s and '70s. Then a nationalist who might speak perfect English would not do so on principle.
Both Claude Charron and Lysianne Gagnon feel that Bill 101 was necessary to protect French and make it the real language of work in the province.
``Bill 101 opened doors. And it had a strong psychological effect, giving Francophones self-confidence,'' says Mrs. Gagnon.
There has been criticism that the French language in Quebec was threatened only in the minds of the intellectuals. Recent surveys have indicated that the status of French speaking Quebeckers had improved before the passage of the language law.
But Claude Charron voices the frustration of his generation, the ones who had to speak English at work. ``I had to work in English even though I was working for the Montreal Transport Commission, where 70 percent of the population was French at the time.''
He admits there is less prejudice toward English-speaking people in Quebec now, and says that comes from Bill 101.
Pierre-Marc Johnson is now both the minister of justice and of intergovernmental affairs in the Parti Qu'eb'ecois government. Johnson is the son of a former premier. His brother Daniel is a rising star in the opposition Liberal Party, and he is likely to be a Cabinet minister if that party is elected.
Mr. Johnson is the man the polls say might lead the PQ back to power if he were party chief.
Political observers in Quebec City expect Premier Ren'e L'evesque to step down this month. Although he has hinted that he will, he has not confirmed it.
A leadership campaign would follow with Mr. Johnson and Bernard Landry the two front-runners. Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. L'evesque reject separatism. At a party convention earlier this year the faithful confirmed L'evesque's wishes: Separatism will not be the issue on which the next election will be fought.
Abandoning the cause was seen as treason by many of the hard-line separatists. Many left the Cabinet, others quit the party. A splinter group may even contest the next election, which would split the nationalist vote. That would likely be a disaster for the PQ, which is already trailing the provincial Liberal Party.
Last fall's federal election confirmed that separatism was pass'e. Quebeckers voted en masse for a strong federal government under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Progressive Conservative Party. They won 58 out of 75 districts which represent Quebec in Ottawa.
Mulroney had fought the election as a federalist; he had worked in the referendum on separatism in May of 1980. The PQ lost the referendum but won the election in April of the following year.
But Mulroney was in many ways a hometown boy. Although English-speaking, he came from the small Quebec town of Baie Comeau and spoke French like a native. Quebeckers instinctively felt they had nothing to fear from the new prime minister. French-speaking Quebeckers have little to fear anyway.
No longer do they have to speak English in their own province. No longer do they need to speak English to get a job.
They work in their own language; they are served in stores and restaurants in French; immigration to the province is largely controlled by the province, which favors French-speaking applicants. The province even has missions in foreign cities such as Paris, London, and Boston.
To many here, separatism hardly seems worth it. Why take the risk when there are few things left to gain?