French President Nicolas Sarkozy tiptoed into the touchy issue of Canadian unity in Paris on Monday during a ceremony to honour Quebec Premier Jean Charest, saying there is no room in the world now for division.
Sarkozy didn't mention Quebec's sovereigntist movement directly but expressed his distaste for "sectarianism" and "self-confinement." The French leader said he doesn't abide by France's long-standing diplomatic position not to get involved.
"Non-interference, non-indifference, honestly, is not my thing," said Sarkozy, speaking at an event where Charest was named a commander of France's Legion of Honour, one of the country's highest awards. "Quebecers are my brothers. Canadians are our friends."
Sarkozy harked back to the message from last year's Francophonie summit in Quebec. He said he embraced the "universal values" held in Quebec and France — the rejection of bigotry, the rejection of division, the rejection of self-confinement, the refusal to define one's identity through fierce opposition to another.
He said the world is going through an unprecedented economic crisis and said division is not needed.
Tone would change in event of a referendum: Charest
While Charest smiled throughout Sarkozy's remarks, he did not stray beyond familiar ground in his speech after accepting the medal.
Charest said he was proud to get the award and accepted it on behalf of all Quebecers who strove to keep the French culture and language alive and well in Quebec for more than 400 years.
Later in a brief meeting with the media outside the Elysée Palace, Charest was cautious when asked about Sarkozy's remarks.
"It's up to you to interpret the president's speech, not me," he said, although he did suggest the French policy of "no interference, no indifference" would return in the event of another sovereignty referendum.
"If we have another referendum, I don't see any other policy possible for France."
Charest was in Europe to attend a global economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Charest holds the same rank in the Legion of Honour as that given to ex-premier Lucien Bouchard several years ago. When René Lévesque was Quebec premier, he was made a grand officer of the legion — a notch above commander, and the same title given posthumously to former premier Robert Bourassa.