Quebec's Urge to Exit Quelled by Red Ink

KNOWING that Quebeckers will not vote to secede from Canada if they are worried about getting a job, Premier Lucien Bouchard has put his independence drive on hold to focus instead on the economy.

Dropping the firebrand rhetoric he used in last fall's nearly successful secession drive, Mr. Bouchard has adopted conciliatory tones. He wants big business and labor to help him bring down Quebec's 11 percent unemployment and slash its deficit.

It's a new focus for Quebec. Winning last fall's referendum on independence was all-consuming for former Premier Jacques Parizeau. That meant neglecting the budget deficit and avoiding social-service cuts that might alienate voters. But economic realities can no longer be ignored by Bouchard, who replaced Mr. Parizeau two months ago.

Quebec is C$75 billion (US$55 billion) in debt, and is the last Canadian province to begin the long climb out of its fiscal hole. Economic growth in Quebec slowed from 3.6 percent in 1994 to 1.5 percent last year. Below-average growth of 2 percent or less has been predicted for the coming year.

Earlier last week, Bouchard announced spending cuts and social program reforms. All are aimed at eliminating Quebec's C$3.2 billion deficit by 2000. Such cuts might ordinarily have sparked labor protests. But last week, Bouchard successfully convinced union and business leaders to cooperate with him. He persuaded business leaders to agree to specific job-creation targets. Union leaders, meanwhile, agreed not to fight government budget cuts.

"This year we will govern full time," Bouchard said. "And when Quebec society concentrates its energies on ... common objectives, it is capable of great things."

Polls released recently suggest that Bouchard may be on the right track. By a margin of 2 to 1, Quebeckers said they think separation is inevitable, but that if forced to choose today between independence and renewed federalism within Canada - they would choose Canada.

"It's a clever move to take on the issues and at least appear to be solving them," says Dale Thomson, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal. "If he can establish himself as a good manager and get the economy rolling, the step to independence will be much easier."

In the months ahead, Bouchard says he wants to travel across Canada and other financial centers like New York to boost investment. The political uncertainty hanging over Quebec's future has been there for years, he argues, and should be considered separate from business decisions.

But rather than let hard-liners in his Party Quebecois believe he has gone soft on separation, Bouchard reaffirmed his commitment to independence."The [Quebec independence] option is not on ice," he said. Still many experts say that any vote is unlikely to come before the fall of 1997 and maybe even later. In the meantime, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien has been given more time to come up with new ideas for keeping the country together.

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