François Legault said recently that if his poll-leading Coalition Avenir Québec forms the next government of Quebec, it will never hold a referendum on sovereignty. He also said that if he is elected premier on Oct. 1, one of his first official adventures will be to celebrate the French language in Armenia. Those two statements, one definitive and the other bizarre, are indirectly related.
The forthcoming summit of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie has been in the news mainly because its secretary-general Michaëlle Jean, former Governor-General of Canada, may be deposed by a hostile party headed by French president Emmanuel Macron. The more peculiar tale of this biennial event is that this fall’s edition is being held in the capital of Armenia, a country where very few people speak French.
About half the population of Armenia speaks Russian, the result of nearly two centuries of Russian and Soviet control. A much smaller number can manage an English conversation, and an even tinier group is competent in the language of Molière. There are proportionately fewer French speakers in the country than there are in the United States.
Yerevan, however, does have a small French university, which gives students who don’t know French enough comprehension to study business or law in the language by their third year. It’s like a post-secondary French immersion school.
The French are much impressed by this willingness to learn. Former French president François Hollande visited the capital’s business college in 2015, in what must have been the late stages of a crafty courtship of la Francophonie by the Armenians, who want to make business links outside the Russian orbit.
Mr. Legault is eager to go to Yerevan as leader of Quebec, and not only to show himself at the first available international event. Francophonie summit attendance is a proud perk of Quebec premiers, won after a hard-fought tussle with Ottawa during and before the first sovereignty referendum. Even though Mr. Legault has vowed never to hold a referendum, his party is supposed to be dedicated to a tough “new nationalist project" for Quebec. He needs to make the most of every occasion to flaunt symbols of autonomy, just as the determined separatists of René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois struggled to do.
In 1980, a few months after the “no” vote won, the Lévesque government pressed for full membership in la Francophonie, not just “observer” status. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau refused, saying that Quebec was part of Canada and had no right to represent itself at a ministerial level at international forums. Quebec had just failed to win outright sovereignty, and there was no way he was going to let the province creep back toward it. France tried to intervene on Quebec’s behalf in 1982, but was also refused.
The 1987 summit, however, was assigned to Quebec City. Perhaps to save the local hosts from embarrassment, the more conciliatory Brian Mulroney made a deal with Pierre-Marc Johnson, a PQ premier who was perceived to be lukewarm about sovereignty. Quebec could become a full member and its premier could attend as the representative of “Canada-Quebec,” and sit behind the provincial flag and next to the PM.
There have been two Francophonie summits in Canada since then – another in Quebec and one in Moncton, in Canada’s other provincial full member – more altogether than there have been in France since the summits began. La Francophonie remains the sole international government forum where Quebec can speak directly. The irony is that this status is a result of the compliance of Canada’s government and anglophone majority, just as Mr. Legault’s “new nationalist project” will need the help of anglophone voters to gain power.
Mr. Legault says he would be an “economy premier,” so he may be happy to tour Yerevan’s business college and the economic forum it will hold with the summit. It’s less clear what kind of business he may be able to stir up. One big plank in his platform is to increase exports of hydro-electric power. None of that surplus is going to Francophonie members who are an ocean away from Quebec.
Mr. Legault’s no-referendum-ever promise is also about business, although it’s mainly about reassuring Quebec’s anglophones, who remember his two decades in the legislature as a PQ member. Without their support, he may never get to Yerevan.