In US, Quebec's Top Separatist Wants to Talk Trade (in English)

Lucien Bouchard, the man who wants to make Quebec a separate nation, was speaking excellent English - and complaining about the English language.

Never in history, the provincial premier told a few reporters, has there been "such a strong language." Two "empires," first the British and now the American, have spread English around the globe.

"It is very difficult to see a time that we don't need some protection for French in Quebec," he said.

Mr. Bouchard was visiting Boston in May as head of a Quebec trade and investment mission aimed at strengthening economic ties with the United States. The Parti Qubcois (PQ) head wasn't keen on talking about separatism. "It is really a domestic issue," he said. "It will be decided at home by a vote."

Nonetheless, when American business executives (or journalists) think about Quebec, the two-decade-long push of the PQ for separation comes to mind. For most such observers, the breakup of Canada, often ranked as the most livable of nations, seems puzzling, if not nutty. So Mr. Bouchard must explain his cause. He tells Americans that they have nothing to fear from an independent Quebec.

One Toronto observer - English speaking - spoke of Bouchard's trip as the "I-am-not-crazy tour."

Quebec is a pioneer in the business of warding off English. It was conquered by Britain in 1759. But with the American Revolution simmering to the south, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act of 1774 permitting the colony to keep its Roman Catholic religion, French civil law, and its language. The measure helped keep Canada loyal during the American Revolution.

Nowadays, English is sweeping the world. It is becoming the common language of the European Union. When a German and Frenchman chat at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, they likely speak English.

About half of EU documents are written in English and translated into the other official tongue, French. French used to be dominant. An EU diplomat expects 70 percent English within a few years.

English is the lingua franca in many multinational corporations. Half of Europeans aged 15 to 24 can now converse in English.

But Quebec so far has successfully resisted a takeover by English.

Bouchard points out that Quebec's 6 million French-speakers are a mere 2 percent in a sea of English-speakers in North America.

One vehicle for maintaining French is a strict language law. The law is supported by both the opposition Liberals and the PQ.

Even many of the 600,000 or so English-speakers in the province have some sympathy with the desire to keep the French culture alive. Most of them are bilingual by now.

"The Anglophones in Quebec are a fine bunch of people," says Nycol Pageau-Goyette, the chairman of Aroports de Montreal and one of 50 business people and others traveling with Bouchard. "They feel the magic."

But enforcement of the law frequently invites ridicule, and sometimes annoyance, among the non-French in Quebec. The Liberal Party was critical of the PQ for expanding the province's language office, which has 20 bureaucrats checking on the illegal use of non-French languages on such things as outdoor signs. "Sometimes there are mishaps," confessed Bouchard. But he defended the recent requirement that in Montreal's Chinatown, French must be added to the colorful Chinese-character signs.

Critics charge that the language law represents a mild form of "ethnic cleansing." English speakers have been leaving "La Belle Province" - some 24,000 during the years 1991-96. It's difficult to sort out how much of this loss was because they feel like second-class citizens, and how much was purely economic. Quebec usually has a jobless rate about 2 percent above Canada's average, now 8.4 percent.

Bouchard's priority after the narrow defeat of secession (49.4 percent in favor) in 1995 has been getting the Quebec economy in better shape. Many Francophones voted "no" because of economic concerns.

Mrs. Pageau notes that most business managers are federalists, preferring to remain in Canada. But they also, she says, support Bouchard's efforts to promote the economy of Quebec and wipe out a huge deficit in the provincial budget.

Bouchard says there will be a surplus in his budget for 1998-99.

Also, a provincial election will be held in the fall or in 1999, Bouchard said. His victory is not assured. A popular French-Canadian federalist, Jean Charest, quit his seat in the federal parliament in March to lead the Quebec Liberal party and fight separatism.

If the PQ does retain power, it is expected to call another vote on separation if polls show a chance of winning it. They don't at this time.

Uncertainty around a plebiscite "would likely have repercussions on financial conditions, business and consumer confidence, investment, and, ultimately, the economic performance of the province," says a Bank of Montreal analysis.

* David Francis is the Monitor's senior economic correspondent.

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