AFTER months of trying and failing to ignite Quebeckers' enthusiasm for a plan to secede from Canada, one man - Lucien Bouchard - appears to have finally struck a hot spark of separatist fervor.
With an Oct. 30 referendum vote on secession nearing and separatist support fading fast, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau stepped aside on Oct. 7 and, in desperation, handed over the reins of the "Yes" campaign to Mr. Bouchard.
Bouchard is leader of a contingent of 53 separatists in Canada's House of Commons. His seemingly less-scripted, passionate oratory contrasts sharply with the stiff, professorial Parizeau. In only a week, that charismatic messenger has begun to generate emotion and fresh hope within the Yes camp.
Until Saturday, polls had consistently shown support for Quebec independence slipping away. Now there is a perceptible shift, analysts say.
"One major event happened last week," says Claude Gauthier, chief of research for CROP, a respected Montreal polling firm. "That one thing was the arrival of Lucien Bouchard on the front lines."
After his appointment to lead the Yes forces, Bouchard, long the province's most popular politician, immediately went into overdrive. In the past week, he has been crisscrossing the province, appearing at rallies, television interviews, and at meeting halls - his fiery oratory dominating media coverage.
"Some say that perhaps we should put our decision off until later and let our children decide," Mr. Bouchard told a crowd in Sorel, Quebec, on Tuesday. "We have no right to waste another generation and lose our time with sterile debates." Again and again, he struck his theme: "No one in Quebec wants to say 'No' to Quebec."
Quebec newspapers are calling it the "Bouchard effect" and pollsters are beginning to see the first results in a jump in the number of Quebeckers favoring a break with Canada.
According to a poll published Saturday by Groupe Leger & Leger, a Montreal firm, 49.2 percent of Quebeckers would vote yes in the Oct. 30 referendum on secession compared with 47.2 percent just a week ago.
The same poll showed the number of Quebeckers who would vote no to secession falling to 50.8 percent from 52.8 percent from the week before.
Given the 3-percentage-point margin of error in the poll, the two sides now appear neck and neck. Further polls this week will confirm whether or not the jump is more than a temporary bump.
"I'm inclined to believe the Yes side gained last week," says Mr. Gauthier. "I've seen unpublished polls that tend to corroborate these results. The question is whether the numbers will stay up this week." Toward the end of September, separatists led by Parizeau even appeared to be unraveling.
Beside his popularity, a key reason for Parizeau's appointment of Bouchard to head the Yes campaign - and any future negotiations between Canada and Quebec - is due to one issue: credibility.
Parizeau spent most of his political life at the radical edge of the separatist camp, urging independence and no political or economic ties to Canada. When it became clear Quebeckers would not vote for a clean break, he agreed to a Bouchard-inspired deal to offer Canada a European Union-style political and economic pact. Now, however, Quebeckers do not believe Parizeau when he says he will try in good faith to negotiate a link with Canada. Recognizing his credibility problem at the 11th hour, Parizeau put Bouchard in the driver's seat.
Despite Bouchard's popularity, positive poll results, and evidence last week that Yes crowds are growing, several analysts say it still will be difficult to generate enough nationalist sentiment to surmount Quebeckers deep concerns about the economic consequences of separation.
"Mr. Bouchard is popular," acknowledged former Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, a staunch federalist, in a speech to investment analysts reported in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. But "people are voting more on issues than on leaders."
Mr. Gauthier the pollster agrees.
"I think when the day comes, people will vote on the issue of separating from Canada," he says. "They will forget about Bouchard, [Prime Minister Jean] Chretien, and Parizeau.... I doubt it will come to a [separatist] victory. Still, nothing is impossible."