Quebec: Will separatist movement run out of steam?

The man who led separatists to a near-victory in a 1995 referendum quits.

He's a fiery orator, one who commanded the attention of an entire country whenever he spoke of his favorite issue: sovereignty.

So Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard's abrupt departure from Canadian politics yesterday marks a significant blow to his Parti Quebecois (PQ) and the separatist movement. His resignation, analysts say, deprives the party of a moderate leader who was seen as having the best chance of success if a referendum on independence for Quebec were to be held.

But the charismatic Premier Bouchard, more beloved among Quebeckers at large than among his own party, never seemed to be in much of a hurry to put independence to the vote. He planned to wait until there were "winning conditions," he said, before holding another referendum. And he was astute enough as a politician to know that the spending cutbacks, the hospital closures, the long-running nurses' strike, and other battles he had to wage - in common with other premiers across the country - did not create "winning conditions."

The PQ congress in May reaffirmed his leadership and showed him able to bring to heel militant factions calling for stronger language laws in the French-speaking province. But the constant bickering within the party over language laws and the timing of a referendum clearly wore him down.

Moreover, his California-born wife is widely reported to have a dislike for politics. He is not a man of personal wealth, and so over the past couple of years, rumors have circulated that the bilingual lawyer is planning to take a corporate job.

"There have been a lot of problems, and he probably figured this time was as good as any," says political analyst Bruce Campbell in Ottawa. "He wants to make more money," he adds, referring to rumors that Bouchard has a job lined up with Bombardier, the Quebec-based airplane manufacturer.

The last straw apparently came in the controversy late last year over anti-Semitic remarks by Yves Michaud, a contender as the PQ candidate in a by-election to the National Assembly (Quebec's provincial parliament), to be held this spring. His remarks were repudiated in a unanimous resolution from the Assembly, but a number of prominent sovereigntists, including former Premier Jacques Parizeau, rallied to his cause - provoking further outrage, particularly from Bouchard. The impassioned rebuke he issued at what was expected to be a routine end-of-the-session press conference, was an indication that Bouchard's patience was running out.

Finance Minister Bernard Landry, tipped as a possible successor, told the Montreal Gazette he spent "hours and hours" trying to get Bouchard to change his mind, "but the mountain was too great to climb." More militant on sovereignty than Bouchard, he is nonetheless also seen as too astute a politician and a finance minister to do anything to upset the international investors Quebec relies on. Bouchard and Landry have often visited the financial centers of the Northeastern United States, spreading a reassuring message of Quebec's stability.

Bouchard's departure can also be seen as fallout from the Nov. 27 federal election, in which Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberals confounded many pundits by not only winning a larger majority, but by gaining seats in Quebec. Mr. Chretien, the latest in a line of Canadian prime ministers from Quebec with a love-hate relationship with their native province, forced through last year the so-called "clarity bill," a law that in effect laid out procedures for how a province might separate from Canada.

The bill was hugely controversial at the time, seen as forcing an issue better left ambiguous. But Chretien pressed ahead - and saw in the November election results a vindication. Quebeckers may want to flirt with separatism, especially to win favors from Ottawa. But when the lines are clearly drawn, a solid majority want to remain Canadians.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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