World

The Sarkozy code on Quebec sovereignty

Deciphering the French president's stance on Quebec sovereignty.

OK Canada, time to get out your decoder rings, it's another installment of the implications that murky, diplomatic language can have on Quebec's sovereignty movement.

In this case, it is all about how a few words spoken by Nicolas Sarkozy this week has touched off yet another trans-Atlantic tizzy, though this time it is Quebec sovereigntists who are upset with what the French president said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy awards Quebec Premier Jean Charest the Legion of Honour during a ceremony held at the Elysee Palace on Feb. 2, 2009. (Philippe Wojazer/Associated Press)

The first installment in this little game began, of course, almost 42 years ago when a visiting president Charles de Gaulle called out from the steps of Montreal City Hall, "Vive le Quebec libre," which happened to be the rallying cry of the sovereigntists of the day.

Since then, his successors have, during at least parts of their political careers, outright endorsed Quebec independence or offered quiet acceptance of the notion, positions that have evolved into the official — enigmatic — French policy of "non-interference, non-indifference."

'Not my thing'

Now, along comes Sarkozy and any warmth towards the idea of an independent Quebec seems to have cooled.

When Governor General Michaëlle Jean visited Normandy last May, Sarkozy first spoke his now standard line: "Quebecers are our brothers, but Canadians are our friends."

He then went on to say, "You know we are very close to Quebec, but I'll tell you we also love Canada very much." Which senior French officials translated as Sarkozy's intent to not support, in any way, sovereignty for Quebec.

This week, while presenting Quebec Premier Jean Charest with France's Legion of Honour — and with senior members of the Francophonie alliance of French-speaking countries on hand — Sarkozy seemed to go further:

"Do you really believe that the world, with the unprecedented crisis that it is going through, needs division, needs hatred?" he asked.

"Those who do not understand that, I don't think they have understood the message of the Francophonie, the universal values we hold in Quebec as in 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."

Charest, incidentally, refuses to re-interpret Sarkozy's words. But he was smiling when they were spoken.

On the long official stance of France of "non-interference, non-indifference" when it comes to Quebec and Canada, Sarkozy ballooned his cheeks like a bullfrog and then exhaled, pronouncing with a smirk, "It's not my thing."

Decoding in Canada

Sovereigntists, who have spent decades carefully courting French leaders, are clearly frustrated at Sarkozy's periodic pitches in favour of Canadian unity.

Responding to the French president's latest musing, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said: "If they're talking about us, about sovereigntists, he's making an eloquent demonstration of his crass ignorance of Quebec's political situation."

Other than that, my colleagues in Ottawa tell me, there has been scant mention of Sarkozy's remarks on Parliament Hill, with one notable exception.

When Duceppe criticized the Conservative budget earlier this week for doing little for Quebec, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood and said, "That's the sectarianism Mr. Sarkozy is talking about." And then said nothing more. He probably doesn't have to.

An unabashed admirer of the U.S., Sarkozy has a penchant for blunt talk. In the case of Canada, his political views may well have been shaped by his extremely close friendship with Paul Desmarais, the Montreal financier who heads Power Corp. and is a big European investor.

Desmarais's strong links to the federal cause in Canada are well known (his son André is married to Jean Chrétien's daughter, France, for example). And he is widely said to have helped define Sarkozy's stance on Quebec. 

France would almost certainly be the first to recognize an independent Quebec after a clear referendum. But Sarkozy is being clear. He'll do nothing to help that day come.