The days of France's leaders leaning publicly toward Canadian unity appear to be gone. The country's new government says it's approach will be non-interference in Quebec's affairs, and gave no sign it will laud unity.
The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had broken with tradition by taking sides in the Canadian national unity debate, suggesting that Quebec sovereigntists are an insular movement that is sowing division. But the new government of François Hollande appears to be reverting to the cagey neutrality of the past.
After meeting with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in Paris on Thursday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took something like the old line – saying France will have a special relationship with Quebec, but won't interfere in its affairs.
That's reminiscent of the old phrasing French leaders had used since the 1970s, when they adopted a policy of "non-interference and non-indifference."
"We have very good relations with Canada, which is a friendly state and country, and we also have very good, warm and friendly relations with Quebec. We don't have to interfere with the internal affairs of Quebec, of course," Mr. Fabius said at a joint news conference with Mr. Baird. "But we know that there is a special relationship, for obvious reasons, between Quebec and France."
The issue has come up again largely because of the election of a Parti Québécois government, and the fact that Premier Pauline Marois will visit Paris next week to meet with France's leaders.
Mr. Fabius, a veteran socialist politician who was France's prime minister in the 1980s, acknowledged he discussed the PQ's election with Mr. Baird, and how it affects relations, but he suggested the issue is old hat.
"Yes, certainly, we broached the general question of relations between Canada, France and Quebec. It's a question we know well," Mr. Fabius said. "Ms. Marois will come next week, and we welcome her with a great deal of pleasure and warmth."
In fact, Ms. Marois will visit France not long after her first head-to-head meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the Francophonie Summit in Kinshasa. The two are expected to have a private meeting before the summit officially kicks off.
Mr. Baird said he raised the issue of the new PQ government in Quebec with Mr. Fabius – but then insisted separation is not on Quebeckers' minds. He said the priority for Canadians and Quebeckers is the economy and "nothing has changed with the Quebec election."
"I underlined the fact that there is no referendum in Quebec," Mr. Baird said.
The question of how France views Quebec separatists has, over the past 45 years, flitted between arcane linguistic gymnastics and tense international politics. France's historical policy – "non-interference and non-indifference" – is a calculated diplomatic formulation, short on meaning and designed to say little so as to avoid giving too much offence, even when some senior politicians in France sympathized with Quebec's separatist movement.
But whether France's view matters or not, it has caused hand-wringing in Ottawa and Quebec City since French president Charles de Gaulle declared "Vive le Québec libre" from Montreal's city hall. In the 1990s, Ottawa feared that then-PQ premier Jacques Parizeau was seeking assurances that France would quickly recognize Quebec as an independent country after a sovereignty vote in a referendum.
Mr. Sarkozy changed the tune after he came to office in 2007 by using very pro-Canada phrases. But his election defeat to Mr. Hollande, and Ms. Marois's election in September, led to revived questions. Mr. Fabius said that Mr. Hollande does not have to copy everything that Mr. Sarkozy did.
"As far as relations with Canada are concerned, I can reassure you they will remain excellent. But the fact that they are excellent does not mean others must be bad," he said. "So relations with Quebec, on the other hand, will be equally excellent."