QUEBEC Premier Jacques Parizeau arrived home from Paris Saturday in high spirits after receiving exactly what he went to France for -- a clear endorsement of his plan to hold a referendum in Quebec this year on whether the province should separate from Canada.
The endorsement of prominent French politicians gives Mr. Parizeau another tool to persuade undecided Quebeckers to vote ''yes,'' assuaging their worry about political and economic isolation in an independent Quebec. This comes at a time when the referendum, as a means of separating from Canada, has been under growing attack from legal scholars and political scientists.
''In the last few weeks in Canada, there's been a furious debate about whether Quebec has a right to a referendum [on independence],'' he told reporters Friday in Paris. ''I had to come to Paris to hear a clear conviction that it's the vote of the people that determines legitimacy. I'm very grateful for the sense I've found here. It's immensely refreshing.''
Since then-President Charles de Gaulle's cry of ''Vive le Quebec Libre!'' to a cheering crowd of Quebeckers during a 1967 state visit, Parizeau and other separatists have looked to France for moral support on Quebec nationhood.
Yet as often as not they have been frustrated as French government officials, while warm, have spoken carefully -- if at all -- of the prospects of independence for Canada's second most-populous province.
''General De Gaulle could get swept away in his speeches,'' says a French Foreign Ministry official. France's official policy ''has been and remains a policy of noninterference, non-indifference.''
But such moderation was replaced by warm embraces throughout Parizeau's six-day trip after Canada's Ambassador to France, Benoit Bouchard, chided French politicians for welcoming Parizeau. The move backfired, shifting sentiment to Parizeau's favor.
Debate still rages between Quebec officials and the Canadian government over what was meant by the technically ambiguous remarks of senior French politicians. But regardless, the interpretation of the Quebec news media that the statements implied diplomatic recognition of Quebec will give Parizeau straws to grasp in his independence campaign.
''French-speaking nations, and particularly France, would naturally recognize the new situation'' following such a vote, said Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris and presidential candidate.
Prime minister Edouard Balladur, the front-runner in the presidential race, was only slightly more circumspect. ''The prime minister [Parizeau] made his recommendations. I have no doubt they will be followed,'' he said, referring to France's recognition of Quebec after a ''yes'' vote.
Such statements came within context of the heavy symbolism favoring an independent Quebec. Upon arriving on Jan. 23, Parizeau was greeted as a head of state, the Republican Guards in formation on the steps of the National Assembly building to receive him. Parizeau was also given the extra honor of passing through the Napoleon Gates, not used in ceremony since 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson entered there.
The man who engineered Parizeau's triumphal reception, the French National Assembly President Philippe Seguin, was called a ''loose cannon'' by Canadaian Ambassador Bouchard early in the week. Soon after, Mr. Seguin arranged an impromptu meeting between Parizeau and Mr. Chirac, who proceeded to deliver the strongest endorsements of all.
''We will walk by your [and Quebec's] side, at the pace and in the direction you will have chosen,'' Seguin told Parizeau.
The only reason such statements matter is because of the battle for credibility with Quebeckers between Parizeau and federalists led by former Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson. Mr. Johnson is busy stumping across Canada trying to drum up support for alternatives to ''status-quo federalism,'' a notion many Quebeckers like but doubt is possible.
Meanwhile, Quebeckers hearts may yearn for independence, but their heads apparently tell many of them that Parizeau's ''no-pain'' scenario for independence is less of a sure thing than described.
Parizeau has promised that Quebec will continue after separation to use Canadian currency, enjoy close economic ties with Canada, use the same passport, and retain many citizenship rights. Membership for Quebec in several important multinational pacts, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, will be almost automatic, he says.
Yet US Ambassador to Canada James Blanchard said last week that ''there have been no assurances given [Quebec] at any level of our government on NAFTA, NATO, or anything else.''
Despite such warnings and analyses predicting economic turmoil following a breakup, Jean Gandois, who heads a 1.5 million member association of French employers told Parizeau this week that he could say that Quebec independence poses ''no risks'' to investors.
Such statements are valuable fodder for a referendum campaign that kicks off Feb. 5 with 15 regional commissions beginning a series of sessions in hamlets and cities across Quebec to discuss the kind of independence Quebeckers might want to see.
Parizeau and his Parti Quebecois, whose main platform is to promote a separatist government, will need all the ammunition they can muster. Polls released last week showed Quebeckers still favor staying in Canada by 54 percent to 46 percent. That marks a slight increase in favor of separation since the provincial election last September.
A few pollsters say support for ''sovereignty'' -- the euphemism Parizeau and others use in place of ''separation'' -- has peaked. Others, including the leader of the ''no'' campaign, warn that a referendum could go either way. Parizeau, analysts point out, has the advantage of deciding when to hold the vote and how to word the referendum question.
''The French endorsements are not a vastly decisive thing,'' says Stephen Scott, a constitutional law professor at McGill University in Montreal. ''But it will be played on endlessly by the Quebec press. It is one of his [Parizeau's] psychological building blocks that will help him sell the message: 'Just vote for it, all will be well.' ''