Pauline Marois: Protecting Quebec against the fate of England

Paul Wells on the Quebec Premier's Festival of Trial Balloons

From this morning’s Le Devoir:

Pauline Marois compared the French model of laïcité, which is “not perfect,” to multiculturalism as practiced in the United Kingdom. “In England, they whack each other on the mouth and send bombs because it’s multiculturalism and nobody can find a place for himself anymore in that society.”

No wonder Quebec’s premier has taken as her principle strategic text a book written by one of her senior ministers called “Nous.” She clearly finds “eux” a little disorienting.

Just about everyone could benefit from getting out a little more often. In the ’90s I had a friend at Le Devoir who spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, some of them west of Peel Street. One afternoon Lise Bissonnette, the paper’s regal publisher, dropped by his desk and said, “You talk to the anglophones. What do they think of…” and she named whatever debate of the day. In practice, Bissonnette rarely had any trouble explaining to her readers what the anglos thought, just as English-language papers outside Quebec are reliably full of insights into the francophone soul, gleaned in English over scotch at the previous evening’s Walrus fundraiser.

Marois’s latest interview is part of her summer-long Festival of Trial Balloons over her plan to bring in a Charter of Values that would ban ostentatious religious symbols, a class of object said to include yarmulkes but not to include the freaking huge statue of Christ Our Lord And Saviour in agony on the cross, which has been perched over the Speaker’s chair in the National Assembly ever since Maurice Duplessis put it there in the late 1930s in an earlier Quebec government’s bid to play wedge-issue politics with religion. For the most part, her goal today is to emphasize that any measures will be phased in gently over time. I’m just speculating here, but perhaps in the first six months, headscarves and kirpans will be permitted in the public service; in the second six months, only golf visors and hip-mounted staplers; after a year, nothing more alienating than eye shadow and Fruit Ninja.

But I’m struck by that line about England, land of multicultural assault and pyromania. Of course you don’t need to be a Parti Québécois premier to share Marois’s apocalyptic vision of the old sod: this spring, after two men with machetes beheaded a British soldier in broad daylight, Mark Steyn wrote: “Today, the dar al-Islam begins in Wellington Street, in southeast London.” But I think most observers would agree that daylight machete beheadings, while terrifying, are still rarer in England than lousy sandwiches, cloudy weather, concentrated expertise in high finance and all the other lurid and glorious accoutrements of one of the most successful civilizations under the eye of, you should excuse the expression, God, a place where tens of millions of people have no trouble finding peaceful and rewarding places for themselves without whacking each other on the mouth (excepting the odd football riot) or sending bombs.

As for the generously admitted slight imperfections resulting from (or existing despite) (or completely ignoring) France’s anti-clerical policies, they include a string of subway bombings in the not-too-distant past, the latest annual round of suburban car torchings, and plenty more. Early this year one of France’s more aggressively mediocre politicians claimed there are neighbourhoods where proper French kids are afraid to eat chocolate buns during Ramadan because roving gangs of Muslim thugs will attack. Then he apologized. Then he insisted he hadn’t apologized.

I could spend a day cataloguing Islamist and anti-Islam and anti-Semitic and other insults, attacks and slights in Britain vs. the rest of Europe, but I doubt any of you would be in a better mood by the time I got done. To be fair to Marois, there is always room for plenty of introspection about the proper balance between integration and assimilation. One of the most prominent critics of British multiculturalism has been the country’s prime minister, David Cameron. In the real world, there’s plenty of room for British anti-racism advocates to give interviews to French newspapers discussing the merits and flaws of each country’s approach.

Marois’s approach is less nuanced, but there aren’t a lot of political leaders anywhere who find themselves tempted by nuance when seeking to sell divisive policies that please their voter bases. With Marois there is this bonus: she has less travel experience and less experience working with, and observing, English speakers than any Quebec premier in my lifetime. Much of the world puzzles her. This helps explain why she hurried to what she thought would be a good-news meeting with Scotland’s nationalist leader, never pausing to consider how profoundly Scottish much of “English Canada” is, and how those ties might affect Scottish attitudes towards a Quebec sovereignist.

After the 2006 shooting at Dawson College, Jan Wong wrote in the Globe and Mail that Quebec was uniquely prone to violence because of the “linguistic struggle” there. It was a particularly egregious version of the sort of things people say about places they mostly know only from newspapers. (UPDATE: People who know Jan Wong, who grew up in Montreal, are concerned that this is a cheap shot. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether it improves or harms their opinion of Wong to know she was reasonably familiar with Quebec, or had been earlier in her life, when she wrote that.) I sometimes have anglophone friends who worry, vaguely, that something unpleasant will happen to them on a visit to Montreal and Quebec City. I’m always happy when I can show them there is no need to worry. Similarly I hope Pauline Marois gets a chance to spend some time, incognito, in England. Perhaps after the next election.