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Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau acknowledges a crowd of referendum Yes supporters at meeting in Montreal in an October 9, 1995 file photo.

Shaun Best/Reuters

Jacques Parizeau, the giant of the Quebec separatist movement who came within a hair of leading nationalists to victory in the 1995 referendum, has died, his wife reported on social media.

Lisette Lapointe said Mr. Parizeau, the former Quebec premier, died just before 8 p.m. on Monday from an undisclosed cause. He was 84.

"The man of my life is gone. In peace, surrounded by love. After a titanic battle, hospitalized for five months, through one ordeal after another, with an uncommon courage. He surrendered tonight," Ms. Lapointe wrote on her Facebook page. "We are devastated. We love him and will love him forever."

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Mr. Parizeau served as Quebec premier for two years from 1994 to 1996 and held vital cabinet posts in the early Parti Québecois governments of the 1970s and '80s. But he will always be known for engineering the 1995 sovereignty vote that came within 54,000 votes of victory.

Several current Parti Québécois members of the legislature delivered midnight tributes to the man who to this day remained a spiritual leader to the movement as well as a thorn in their side. Jean-François Lisée, a current member of the National Assembly who was a young adviser to Mr. Parizeau on the referendum campaign, said "an immense period of mourning opens tonight. A giant is gone."

Mr. Parizeau was known to have been occasionally ill in recent years but each time he bounced back – often to deliver an eloquent and devastating indictment of how his successors failed to live up to the national dream.

As recently as April, during an apparent respite from hospital care, Mr. Parizeau told an interviewer the Parti Québécois has lost its soul in "the byzantine discussions" of sovereignty strategy. He was sharp-witted if a bit frail. It was his last televised interview.

Mr. Parizeau was a strong political strategist but his mastery wasn't total. In his concession speech on referendum night Oct. 30, 1995, Mr. Parizeau angrily lashed out at the business community and Quebec minorities who rejected his project.

"We were defeated, by what? By money and ethnic votes, essentially," he said on stage. Mr. Parizeau would retire from politics a year later, leaving behind a badly damaged movement among the province's non-francophone minorities. He was roundly criticized for years afterward, including by his Mr. Lisée and former Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, for his divisive words.

"That night was a tragedy for him and for us," Mr. Lisée said in a 2006 interview on the public Télé-Québec network.

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"It was brute emotion. [The referendum] was a big step forward but all he saw was his failure to take the next step. And that anger came out."

None of the PQ leaders who followed him were ever aggressive enough for his taste in their pursuit of Quebec independence, including Mr. Bouchard who replaced him as premier and later became disillusioned with the separatist movement.

Mr. Parizeau was born in Montreal in 1930 and was educated in the best schools in the city and in Paris and London. A hint of Englishman's accent stuck when he spoke the language. The accent combined with his refined intellect, aristocratic nature and penchant for three-piece suits were inspiration for the nickname "Monsieur."

Like many of Quebec's early sovereigntist leaders such as René Lévesque, Mr. Parizeau started out a federalist. He once described how he was on a train ride to Banff preparing an economic paper in 1967 when epiphany struck and he decided the province would be better off independent.

Mr. Parizeau served in the public service before joining the PQ in 1969. He lost his seat in two subsequent elections as Mr. Lévesque, the PQ leader, went down to defeat. Mr. Lévesque would become the first PQ premier in 1976 and Mr. Parizeau would hold key economic portfolios. Seen as too much of a hardliner, Mr. Parizeau was dispatched to far-flung regions during the 1980 referendum campaign where he could make fewer waves, he told a biographer. Separatists lost that vote badly.

Mr. Parizeau's accomplishments as a minister and economist in the public service would have put him among the legendary figures of Quebec politics. He helped create the Quebec government's investment arm and its pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and also created the strategy to nationalize the province's hydro-electric resources.

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When Mr. Lévesque gambled on the "Beau Risque" of seeking a constitutional accord in 1984, Mr. Parizeau resigned from cabinet along with several ministers and PQ members of the National Assembly. Those efforts would fail badly and set the stage for Monsieur's next chapter.

Mr. Parizeau became PQ leader in time to be defeated in the 1989 election and became premier in 1994. The premier and the sovereignty option were both relatively unpopular until Mr. Bouchard returned from Ottawa, where he was leader of the Bloc Québécois.

Mr. Parizeau's tactical cunning combined with Mr. Bouchard's eloquence and personal narrative – he nearly died of a flesh-eating bacteria 10 months before the vote and campaigned on a prosthetic leg and cane – proved nearly irresistible for Quebeckers. But resist they did and Canada was never the same.

The father of two children – Isabelle, a lawyer, and Bernard, a doctor – Mr. Parizeau was married to Polish-born novelist Alice Poznanska, who died in 1990. In 1992, he married Ms. Lapointe, a former aide who went on to forge her own political career as a member of the Quebec national assembly.

After quitting politics, Mr. Parizeau busied himself with his vineyard and being the occasional thorn in the side of PQ premiers, popping up occasionally to criticize their inaction on sovereignty.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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