How Quebec's Wily Premier May Keep Separatism Alive

Lucien Bouchard could give President Bill Clinton lessons in situational politics. The charismatic Quebec premier has dodged between embracing Canadian unity a decade ago and passionately backing independence for Quebec more recently. Now, the wily 59-year-old lawyer will need all his political deftness to win a second term in elections that he is calling early--possibly on or around Nov. 30.

Although he's trailing slightly in polls and separatism is on the wane, Bouchard might hang on to power. He beat back a mid-September attempt by radical members of his Parti Quebecois to force a prompt replay of the 1995 sovereignty referendum if he wins. Instead, he is committed only to staging a ballot when he decides that "winning conditions" prevail. The fudge may well make the party more palatable to the majority of Quebeckers weary of such referendums.

ECONOMIC UPSWING. Bouchard has nearly closed the gap with his main rival, Jean Charest, the dynamic 40-year-old Francophone leader of Quebec's Liberal Party. Charest, formerly leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party, quit his Ottawa parliamentary seat last spring after being persuaded that he was the best hope for getting a pro-unity government into office in Quebec City.

Initially, Charest was enormously popular and had an 8-point lead over Bouchard. But now it's far from clear that his coattails are big enough to elect sufficient Liberals to oust the PQ. For one thing, he trails among French-speaking voters outside Montreal. "He is a graft, and it has taken longer than expected to integrate his group into the party," says Yves-Marie Morissette, a McGill University law professor and Liberal adviser.

Charest has tried to focus the debate on issues such as the economy, where Bouchard long looked weak. But that strategy has begun to work against him because Quebec's economy has lately shown surprising signs of life. The provincial gross domestic product grew 2.7% last year and may show similar growth this year--the strongest performance since 1988. Unemployment, traditionally higher than in the rest of Canada, has dropped to 10.2% from a peak of over 13% in 1993 and could fall further, say economists at the Toronto-based Nesbitt Burns brokerage firm. What's more, the PQ government is close to balancing the provincial budget.

Bouchard had to call early elections to extract benefit from those gains. He could have waited until next spring. But by then, Quebec might have fallen prey to the slowdown now threatening all North America. That would have given Charest traction. And Quebeckers might have flocked back to Charest simply to try a different approach.

UNEXPECTED HELP. For now, Bouchard seems to be on a roll. Recently, he scored with Francophones by jawboning leading Montreal department stores into shunning bilingual signs an English-speaking group had demanded. Liberals were dismayed by the demand because it "increases nationalist sentiment," complains Clements Mayr, a lawyer who heads the Groupe des 100, a pro-federalist organization.

Moreover, Bouchard and the separatists have gotten help from an unexpected source, the federal Supreme Court. In August, the court ruled that if Quebec were to try to secede, it would have to negotiate with Canada. For separatists, just getting the idea clear that Canada would have to talk about the unthinkable was a victory.

Today, Bouchard has every interest in playing down secession in order to boost his chances of winning the forthcoming election. By keeping his powder dry, he could be well-armed to fight another day for a sovereign Quebec--from the premier's office.

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