Harper’s new friend in France

What do a Canadian conservative and a French socialist have in common? Quebec.

by Paul Wells

Harper’s new friend in France

Stephane Lemouton/Abacapress/CP

In the two weeks between the first round of France’s presidential election and the runoff on May 6, Marc Lortie had a small but important assignment.

Stephen Harper told Lortie, a career diplomat who served a brief stint in the 1980s as a press secretary to Brian Mulroney and is now Canada’s ambassador to France, to get a hold of François Hollande’s portable telephone number. So Harper was one of a very few foreign leaders who were able to reach Hollande and congratulate him on the night he became France’s new president. French diplomatic sources, who reported this little tidbit to Maclean’s, were duly impressed.

It’s the little things that count when you’re trying to build a personal relationship. Harper is not always attentive to such details, but getting things right with the new French president is a high priority for him. That would be true with any new French president. The old country is at least Canada’s second- or third-best entree into any discussion with the European Union or NATO, and it’s a useful intermediary with a half-dozen Middle Eastern countries. Lortie himself was sent to Paris when Harper had high hopes, later dashed, for a productive relationship with Hollande’s dingbat predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. But France may be about to matter more than it usually does to Canada, so Harper has taken a series of steps to ensure he is in Hollande’s good books.

The reason, of course, is the prospect of an election in Quebec. A campaign could begin within weeks, and Jean Charest’s Liberals will be lucky to win. Much likelier is a victory by Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois, which means a return to jockeying and positioning over the prospect of yet another sovereignty referendum.

French politicians have what Ottawa regards as a long history of meddling in Canada’s affairs when it comes to Quebec separatism, dating back to Charles de Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec libre” speech at Montreal City Hall in 1967. Even in the referendum year of 1995, when Jacques Chirac offered far more equivocal words of what may have been support on CNN (“If the referendum is positive, the government [of France] will recognize the fact”), federal officials had to scramble to do damage control.

From 1977 to 2007, France’s official policy on Quebec’s future was “non-indifference and non-interference”—a policy of being maddeningly inscrutable while declining to take sides between the Parti Québécois and the federal government. But beginning with his 2007 election, Sarkozy began to change that. Sarkozy’s economic policies and his stance on major foreign-relations issues might change from day to day, but on Quebec he was consistent—and more hostile toward separatists than any of his predecessors.

Sarkozy’s best Canadian friend is the steadfastly federalist Power Corporation CEO Paul Desmarais. On a 2008 visit to Quebec City, Sarkozy became the first modern French president to come down openly against separatism. “I don’t see how proof of fraternal, familial love for Quebec has to feed proof of defiance toward Canada,” he said. “Frankly, if there’s someone who would tell me that the world today needs another division, then we don’t have the same view of the world.”

Enter the new guy. Hollande is a socialist and Harper really isn’t, and Conservatives in Ottawa worried that Hollande would differentiate himself from Sarkozy by retreating from his predecessor’s pro-federalist stance. But to their surprise, senior French and Canadian sources say the two leaders have managed to get off to a good start together.

Even on Quebec. On that election-night phone call, Hollande referred to “une amitié et un cousinage” with Canada and Quebec, which could translate as a reference to France’s Canadian friends and its cousins in Quebec. Note-takers and public-service parsers on the Canadian side noted the resemblance to Sarkozy’s preferred language: “amitié et fraternité,” friends and brothers.

Two weeks later they were at Barack Obama’s Camp David retreat in Maryland for a G8 summit. In their first face-to-face meeting, Hollande said two things about Quebec to Harper. First, that France sees its relations with Quebec and its relations with all of Canada to be parallel, harmonious and essentially synonymous. Second, that Hollande has no intention of disrupting that state of affairs.

Both French and Canadian sources interpret those comments as a continuation of Sarkozy’s line on the whole business, which was in turn viewed as an unusually pro-federalist departure from past practice. So Sarkozy left his Quebec brothers, or at least the Péquistes among them, out in the cold—and Hollande seems content to prolong that diplomatic isolation.

Of course, much could still change. A newly elected premier Marois would hop a flight to Paris immediately after an election victory. No French president ever refuses a visit from a Quebec premier, and Hollande would take care to be nice to Marois. And at levels below the head of state, socialist members of the French national assembly often have close and sympathetic relations with the PQ.

But Hollande has clearly decided he has enough ways to distinguish himself from Sarkozy without using Quebec as another wedge. And at least now, while a referendum is hypothetical, Hollande’s heart isn’t in the game.

This matters because the last time the Yes side almost won, France was at the heart of the game. In his 1997 book Pour un Québec souverain, Jacques Parizeau writes that foreign recognition of a seceding Quebec would be “an essential condition” for separation to succeed. The United States’ reaction would be key; “the only way” to force American recognition of a secession would be to get quick French recognition.

There were a lot of problems with Parizeau’s plan, but it would not even get a chance to fall apart later if France did not side with the separatists against Ottawa first. Harper followed the Camp David meeting with an unscheduled side trip to Paris from the London celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in early June. He will continue to hold Hollande as close as he can, through a summer and autumn of political uncertainty in Quebec.




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Harper’s new friend in France

  1. Hey, you Frech out there, I’d warn your leader that he’s getting in bed with a snake. Harper and his Cons lied, cheated and stole to get into power. They’re not a ligament government.

    • Who needs any proof of such an accusation? You just put it out there on the internet, and hope that a few people just believe you: is that the theory?

      If so, you might want to learn how to spell a bit more ligamently for people to believe you.

      • you right wing FOX NEWS ppl will always be blind

        • And you angry, bitter Communists will never be satisfied until everybody else is as miserable and unhappy as you.

  2. Thanks for the peek behind the main media stories Paul – gives a different perspective.
    Good to see Harper is being pro-active. Who’d a thunk he would become such a little globe-trotter and diplomat, lol.

  3. On the clean read mode, it was useful, but, when I returned to other open sites in my browser, the fonts had all been reduced considerably — must be a start up glitch in your system.

  4. The chances of Marois winning are 50 – 50 at best. The chances of PM Marois holding a referendum are 10-90. Those familiar with permutations and combinations will know that the chances of a Frencrh president getting invoved in a hypothetical Qc referendum are very small indeed. I doubt if M. Hollande loses much sleep over this one

    • It’s not the referendum that’s the worry, it’s when Quebec comes looking for international recognition after a referendum that’s the worry.

      • to look for recognition you first need to actually hold and win a referendum, a very unlikely series of events, just mentioning that you want to hold a referendum will lose you the electoion, so what is to worry about ?

        • Not quite true. There is separation under Canadian law, international law, and de facto separation. International recognition is a factor in the second but absolutely crucial in the third. (When I said after a referendum, I meant one which either fails outright or succeeds but the necessary negotiations fall through – a strong likelihood).

  5. Anyone that is a friend of Harper’s is not, a friend to Canadians. Harper only has friends, for his own ulterior motives.

    Over 2/3 of Canadians and counting, suspect Harper cheated to win the election, with the robo-call cheat election fraud. Harper is desperately trying to quash, the robo-call cheat investigation. William Corbett, “suddenly” resigned from Elections Canada. Harper has installed one of his own boys, into Elections Canada, Yves Corte. That we have to watch out for.

    Harper is also trying to prevent, the ridings in dispute investigations too. However, Harper is appointing, two new Conservative judges. One judge is due in August. I suspect he will hear the appeals, and the other judges declaration the Etiboke Center election, will be struck down by Harper’s new judge. Watch for it.

    • show some evidence or you are full of horse puckey…loser

  6. The second I read your story I thought, my gosh, as he does everything, Harper is anticipating Quebec’s separation from Western oil and gas provinces and is quietly arranging for France to welcome Quebec into a partnership.

    Unfortunately, with this barbarian’s flawed thought processes, he probably is doing just that…

  7. Quebec will be able to escape Harper treachery when the province secedes from Canada and joins France. Separation is sure to come sometime soon, and Quebec should not be blamed for escaping ruling barbarians.

  8. Les anglophones canadiens, le peuple le plus ennuyeux de la planète. Your american friend. Go Québec.

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