Harper’s new friend in France

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

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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