PARIS – France has officially revived its traditionally neutral policy on Quebec independence that was temporarily interrupted under the resolutely pro-Canadian-unity era of Nicolas Sarkozy.
The newly elected President Francois Hollande made the announcement Monday after meeting with Pauline Marois at the presidential palace in Paris, during her first visit to France as Quebec premier.
He made it clear his government would support a return to the so-called “ni-ni” approach — that of neither interfering in, nor being indifferent to, the independence debate.
“You know, this formula has existed for 30 years,” Hollande said in a news conference, with Marois at his side.
“It was maintained by all successive governments. Therefore, this formula still prevails today. I am for continuity.”
The non-interference, non-indifference policy was introduced in France in the 1970s as a middle-ground solution — a halfway station between outright opposition to Quebec independence and full-out endorsement of the sort famously made in Charles De Gaulle’s notorious, “Vive le Quebec libre speech.”
Such an approach could, in theory, see France stay neutral in a hypothetical future sovereignty referendum, then recognize Quebec independence following a Yes vote.
The pro-independence Parti Quebecois has always energetically courted French support in the belief that foreign recognition would be key to becoming a country.
Marois, the newly elected PQ premier, was delighted by Hollande’s remarks.
“He chose these words to tell you that he has always been at our side and that this solidarity will carry on,” said Marois, who travelled to Paris after attending the Francophonie summit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The decades-old French policy had been iced by Hollande’s predecessor, Sarkozy, who was a close friend of Quebec’s federalist business class and also enjoyed warm relations with Jean Charest, the pro-Canada ex-premier.
Sarkozy had clearly stated his preference for Canadian unity and said the world didn’t need more divisions.
Marois declined Monday to discuss some of the tough words Sarkozy had for Quebec’s independentistes, whom he said were guilty of advocating the “detestation of the other” and of isolating themselves.
Hollande, elected president earlier this year, highlighted France’s close ties with Quebec, which he said are marked by “partnership, fraternity and solidarity.”
During her visit to the French capital, Marois was also scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, several other high-ranking politicians and former prime ministers Alain Juppe, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Francois Fillon.
In Ottawa, the federal government took the news in stride.
“Canada and France are allies, but also partners and friends,” the Government of Canada said in a statement, noting that Prime Mininister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had both recently visited Paris.
“That being said, Quebecers don’t want to reopen old constitutional quarrels.”
Recent surveys placed support for independence at some of its lowest levels in decades, with one poll suggesting a mere 28 per cent of Quebec respondents favoured separation.
-With files by Michel Dolbec