At the time of the last provincial elections in Quebec a few years ago, an ``Anglophone'' asking directions on the streets of this old, ``Francophone'' city might have gotten a dirty look. Or even a curt reply in French. Many French-speaking Quebeckers were annoyed at English-speaking Canadians, and vice versa. Visiting Americans were sometimes the unintended verbal victims of this quarrel. But today, with a provincial election scheduled for Dec. 2, the campaign atmosphere is far different. For one thing, as a rule, Anglophones are treated politely in the province.
Of greater significance, the governing Parti Qu'eb'ecois (PQ) has been transformed.
When it came to power nine years ago, it aimed for a sovereign (separate) Quebec and for a degree of Swedish-style democratic socialism. Now it has less sweeping goals including negotiating with the government in Ottawa for a better deal for the province -- within the bounds of Canadian federalism.
With more than 12 percent unemployment, the dominant concern among the citizens of the province is jobs. Indeed, Quebec is regarded these days as the Canadian province most gung-ho for capitalism.
Sovereignty failed by a wide margin to gain a mandate in a 1980 referendum. Since then it has lost even more support and the PQ says it will not seek a second referendum. Today the party has independence as its top priority, but without any deadline. It now calls for collaboration with the federal government while seeking a constitutional agreement that gives the provinces somewhat more power.
Separatism, basically a dead or dormant issue, is labelled as a last resort. Both the PQ and its challenger, the Liberal Party, are appealing to the political middle -- which does not want a separate province. ``The only thing which matters is the economy,'' says Raymond Giroux, an editorial writer for Le Soleil, the major French-language newspaper here.
``There is no more a party to the left,'' notes Pierre Talbot, a vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Metropolitan Quebec. ``The parties are at the center because the electorate is at the center.''
The PQ, he adds, is advocating development of the economy through the private sector, rather than pushing state corporations or the government as an employer, stealing the Liberal Party's free enterprise thunder.
At the moment the PQ is behind in the polls. A survey of 998 voters indicated that 48 percent would support the Liberals, 40 percent the PQ, 6 percent the Quebec Conservative Party, 4 percent the left-of-center New Democratic Party, and only 1 percent the Parti Ind'ependantiste, a group of die-hard separatists who broke away from the PQ.
The PQ's move to the center was reaffirmed Sept. 29 when party members voted for a moderate, Pierre Marc Johnson, as party leader, replacing Premier R'en'e Levesque, who had stepped down.
The poll, conducted for the Journal de Montr'eal, showed, however, that Premier Johnson was considered better qualified to govern Quebec than Liberal leader Robert Bourassa by a margin of 44 to 33 percent, prompting the PQ to center its campaign around Johnson.
The Liberal Party emphasizes the qualifications of its legislative candidates while attacking the PQ. If Johnson shows any twinge of separatism, Mr. Bourassa lands on him with both feet. The Liberal leader wants to remind voters of the unpopular separatist roots of the PQ, and hints that Johnson would still like to lead Quebec to political independence.
Hoping to attract the votes of the French- and English-speaking voters and ethnic minorities in the province, neither party has dwelt on the English-French language disputes that have quieted only in the last two years or so. ``They don't want to open that can of worms,'' says Prof. Guy Rocher, a socio-political lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Montreal.
``All those who chose to be on this territory are Quebeckers -- no matter what their language, no matter what their culture,'' Premier Johnson told an audience of PQ members.
Bourassa, whose Liberal government was defeated by the PQ in 1976, says he will only remove the ``irritants'' from Bill 101, the controversial language law passed by the Levesque government.
That law and that of the preceding Liberal government, Bill 22, have succeeded in making French the language of business in Quebec, and particularly in Montreal, a bilingual city. Previously many French-speaking Canadians in Montreal had to speak English at work, though they vastly outnumber Anglophones in the province.