LUCIEN BOUCHARD will soon become Canadian unity's biggest problem.
The fiery orator, who came within an eyelash of rallying Quebeckers to separate from Canada, is slated to become Quebec's new premier.
Undaunted by the narrow vote against independence Oct. 30, Mr. Bouchard says his goal is still to make Quebec a nation. Smiling and relaxed, Bouchard this week accepted the call of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) - Quebec's governing party - to become the province's premier.
''The fundamental objective of the Parti Quebecois remains sovereignty,'' said Bouchard. ''We've never been so close.''
His move to Quebec City poses both complex new problems and some opportunities for separatist forces.
He has promised another referendum on separation, probably by April 1997. When asked by reporters if Canada could come up with an offer to woo him and Quebec to stay within the federation, he was intransigent. ''No, it's not possible,'' he said. ''I am a sovereigntist.''
Bouchard's decision follows Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau unexpected Oct. 31 resignation after the referendum's defeat the day before.
Bouchard excels in his current role of gadfly to Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the House of Commons. But Bouchard so far has enjoyed mostly appointed government posts; some say he is popular partly because he has not had to make many publicly unpopular choices. Will he excel in the arguably harder role of governing and cutting budgets?
With Quebec's deficit projected at $2.9 billion this fiscal year, second-worst deficit among the provinces, Bouchard will be obliged to chop deeply. Such cuts could fray the PQ coalition by alienating public-employee labor unions cultivated by Parizeau.
''There are some in the PQ who would prefer to protect Bouchard from having to make the sorts of tough spending cuts that might make him less popular,'' says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa-based political consultant. ''They would rather have had him as a heavy hitter stepping in fresh during the next referendum.''
Bouchard acknowledged that all would not be sweetness and light as the province gets its fiscal house in order. But some say his popularity may not suffer because Bouchard laid the groundwork during the recent referendum campaign for blaming coming hardships on Ottawa. Every ''sparrow that falls in Quebec'' will be blamed on federal government cuts, Mr. Campbell says.
Bouchard's move could undermine the separatist cause in one subtle, but significant way. He leaves behind the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), a group of 52 separatists who have been the official opposition party in Canada's House of Commons in Ottawa since the fall of 1993. The BQ, without Bouchard (and the PQ as well), may not be nearly as effective in keeping the Chretien government rhetorically pinned down in the House of Commons.
Bouchard's departure also means the BQ may lose one seat - and its ''official opposition'' status in the House of Commons, diminishing its public profile.
It's unclear, however, how much Chretien's federalists will gain. If the BQ loses official opposition status, Preston Manning's Reform Party, which has been highly critical of Mr. Chretien's handling of the Quebec issue, would have the spotlight. Reform might, in some ways, be even tougher for Chretien to deal with than the BQ.
One thing seems clear: The sword of separation still hangs heavily over Canada. The status quo, in regard to Quebec's constitutional position as a province like every other, is widely deemed unviable in Quebec, despite the narrow federalist referendum victory.
The narrow federalist victory has been interpreted as a mere breathing space. It is a sign, many say, that Quebeckers mean business and will chose to separate in a future referendum vote should no other changes come about by spring 1997.
Chretien's initial moves to push through changes in Parliament in the days following the sobering referendum vote have slowed. A special Cabinet committee was formed to recommend options by Christmas. In the meantime, however, it has become clear that whatever Ottawa proposes to give Quebec in the way of new powers and recognition will be demanded by the other provinces as well.
Referring to this issue in his news conference, Bouchard said he did not expect anything to come from the Cabinet committee. ''We've been waiting for 30 years, and nothing acceptable has come out of it yet,'' he said.
A PQ convention will be held to nominate and acclaim Bouchard, but no challengers are expected. The top provincial post is being handed to Bouchard on a platter.
Some say, however, that the honeymoon could be a short one. Bouchard has had a reputation as an autocrat in the BQ. But the PQ is a coalition of hard-line separatists (which Bouchard is not) and others who aren't as hardened. Keeping that coalition from unraveling will require a deft touch.
''Being premier, that's a bit more difficult than to be in the opposition,'' Chretien said dryly of the Bouchard switch. ''You have to make tough decisions.''