Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The 'mother country' gives Quebeckers a wake-up call

JEFFREY SIMPSON

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

In case you missed it -- and who could blame you if you had? -- Bloc Québécois delegates passed a resolution last weekend saying that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, lost by the French in 1759, explains "even today our march toward sovereignty."

Hello? By this reasoning, the events of 2½ centuries ago explain, justify and propel people to do things today. God help us.

In the veil-of-tears narrative of Quebec secessionists, and parts of mainstream Quebec historiography, defeat, setbacks and reversals all began on that fateful day in 1759. Survival for francophones did occur, but in the teeth of all odds and fierce resistance from the "authorities" (England, then Canada). Some day, history's unjust hand will be dealt again, and then Quebec will become sovereign, proud and "free."

This future narrative assumed that the old mother country, France (which, by the way, cared very little for its colony), would walk with Quebec toward its destiny of independence. As a result, certain Quebec politicians and most of the media hung on every French politician's word about Quebec independence.

Every time a French president or prime minister arrived in Quebec (or the rest of Canada), or some Quebec or Canadian leader arrived in France for a bilateral visit, you could be certain the navel-gazing media would ask about France's attitude toward Quebec.

It was a pathetic performance of subservience and parochialism, French governments having long grown tired of the subject. France had been opposed to Quebec secession since the presidency of François Mitterrand, and relations had been generally excellent between Paris and Ottawa.

But the whole charade was accompanied by the invention of a tiny vocabulary of phrases about French attitudes toward the possibility of eventual Quebec independence, some day, somehow.

For a long time, the official French iteration was " ni ingérence ni indifférence" (neither interference nor indifference), a phrase suitably subtle that it could be read in a variety of ways.

Now that subtle formula has been ditched. Whatever ambiguity attended French attitudes toward this tiresome question has been jettisoned, courtesy of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr. Sarkozy, awarding the Legion of Honour to Quebec Premier Jean Charest on Monday in Paris, repeated in the strongest language yet that he and his country totally oppose the separation of Quebec from Canada - a declaration stunningly ignored by some English-Canadian newspapers.

Mr. Sarkozy's statement was even stronger than the one he delivered while in Quebec last year. "Believe me, my friends, does the world, moving through this [economic] crisis without precedent, need division?" he said. "Need hatred? Is it in proving that we love others that we need to detest our neighbours? What a strange idea."

France and Quebec, he continued, share universal values, such as "the refusal of sectarianism, the refusal of division, the refusal to be self-absorbed, the refusal to define one's identity by fierce opposition to another." Quebec is a member of France's "family"; Canada is France's "friend." One kind of relationship does not preclude the other.

"It's true," Mr. Sarkozy said, "that the 'non-interference, non-indifference' formula was the rule for years, but, honestly, it's not my thing."

Can we now get past this embarrassingly parochial matter with the French? For almost three decades, French governments of all stripes have made it clear, publicly and privately, that they don't favour Canada's dismemberment.

France and Canada are on the same wavelength on issue after issue, including Afghanistan and trade (Canada and the European Union are entering serious talks about a free-trade agreement). They both opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Right now, France is Canada's best hope to find two Canadian diplomats kidnapped in Niger, a former French colony. Canada is undoubtedly counting heavily on French intelligence to identify their location and captors.

The French are rationalists and realists in foreign policy. The creation of a little state in North America makes no sense to them. The French language is well protected in Quebec, cultural exchanges are strong and, in a divided Europe, France doesn't need any examples of secession that could spread by way of example.

Will certain nationalists still long for a pat on the head from France? Probably. After all, if you seriously believe that the outcome of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham justifies certain actions today, you will believe anything.

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