Ever since French president Charles de Gaulle boomed out "Vive le Québec Libre!" on the balcony of Montreal City Hall in 1967, the Quebec media has lavished an astonishing amount of attention on every small utterance and gesture from the government of France when it comes to Quebec separatism.  

This week, when new Parti Québecois Premier Pauline Marois made her first official visit to France, was no exception.

Apparently it was not a "state visit", and so the Quebec premier was not received by lineups of colourful, costumed soldiers and the customary trumpets and drums.

Marois's aides, however, breathlessly pointed out that President François Hollande came down the steps of the Elysée Palace to greet her as she stepped out of her car, which the president usually only does for visiting heads of state.  

Stairs play a big role in the history of France-Quebec relations. As a young reporter, I accompanied then-premier René Lévesque on his first official visit to France in 1977.

Not only did he get all the trumpets and drums, but when he arrived at the French National Assembly, there was a big fuss over the fact that he was invited to enter by an exterior gate and staircase that had not been used for decades.

A down-to-earth kind of guy, Lévesque didn't seem unduly impressed by these odd foibles of French diplomacy, and he went through the motions with his usual shrugs and eye-rolling.  

On the other hand, when PQ premier Jacques Parizeau was assigned yet another unused staircase years later, he mounted each step with the gravitas of Moses on the way up the mountain to see the Promised Land.

'Recognition'

For his part, though, Lévesque was very pleased to receive a Légion d'Honneur medal from president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing on that first visit, and Levesque took great delight in waving it under the nose of prime minister Pierre Trudeau at the Grey Cup game in Montreal later that year.

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Quebec's Pauline Marois and French President Francois Hollande on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris. A modest salute? (Reuters)

 

Trudeau was never awarded a Légion d'Honneur.

But he was apparently later consoled when Queen Elizabeth told him that she found Giscard to be a horrible snob, someone who made even her feel like an "arriviste" because Giscard could trace the nobility of his own family back much further in history.  

As the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac also gave Lévesque an elaborate reception at Paris City Hall in 1977.

Later, as president, he pushed France's support for Quebec separatism as far as he could.

Just weeks before the 1995 Quebec referendum, then-premier Parizeau made a secret visit to Paris, seeking early diplomatic recognition of Quebec as a country in the event of a referendum victory.

Parizeau was rewarded when Chirac told CNN just days before the vote that he would extend recognition to Quebec, a statement that infuriated Jean Chrétien and the Canadian government.  

When, in an interview years later, I asked president Chirac about that statement, he suggested that he was only trying to say that he would recognize that the vote had occurred, and was not talking about diplomatic recognition of the new country.

He even said that with a straight face.

More 'ni-ni'

For many years, France's oft-stated policy towards Quebec's political status was "non-interference and non-indifference," a policy short-handed to "ni-ni" in the Quebec media.

More recently, former president Nicholas Sarkozy broke with that policy with a series of denunciations of Quebec separatism as inward-looking and small-minded.

Sarkozy was very close to the ultra-federalist Desmarais family, the owners of Montreal-based Power Corp., who had befriended Sarkozy during a period in the political wilderness in France in the late 1990s.

He even came to Quebec last summer for a family vacation at a Desmarais residence just after his election defeat to the Socialist Hollande.  

Pauline Marois desperately wanted President Hollande to return to the policy of "ni-ni", and he obliged in an answer to a reporter's question, although he did not actually pronounce the exact phrase himself.

Nevertheless, Marois stood beaming beside him as he supported what he called the "continuity" of France's long-professed neutrality on the Quebec question.

However, her visit and the president's words seemed to have received very little coverage in the French media, as everyone realizes that the likelihood of a Quebec sovereignty referendum in the foreseeable future is almost nil.

Premier Marois admitted as much in a French radio interview after she left the Elysée.  

Back home in Montreal, opinion on talk shows is divided between those who are thrilled to have any international support for Quebec sovereignty, even if it is through winks and nudges, and those who find it demeaning for Quebec to spend so much time and attention worrying what the "mother country" will say or do.  

However, you can be sure that when President Hollande gets around to his first official visit to Quebec, the microscopic attention to every word and facial expression will begin anew.  

Somewhere, the imperious Charles de Gaulle will be smiling.