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Marois visits France to seek support for sovereignty

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois leaves the Francophonie summit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Sunday.


As Premier Pauline Marois starts her three-day official visit to Paris by meeting French President François Hollande, the Parti Québécois Leader hopes France will revert to its long-standing diplomatic position toward Quebec.

Arriving from the Francophonie Summit, held over the weekend in Kinshasa, Ms. Marois also hopes France will espouse Quebec's conviction that culture is off limits in the free-trade talks between Canada and Europe. Those talks are in their final stretch as negotiators reconvene in Brussels this week.

Ms. Marois will meet Mr. Hollande for 45 minutes at the Élysée presidential palace at lunchtime Monday before heading off to the National Assembly in the afternoon to meet its president, Claude Bartolone. The rest of her schedule is still unclear, as her political aides held her itinerary and press background briefing secret until Sunday night.

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Expectations are running high, both in Quebec and in France, that the newly elected socialist president will re-establish the "non-interference, non-indifference" policy that France had followed since former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing coined the expression 35 years ago. This policy establishes that France will remain neutral if there is another referendum on the independence of Quebec, but that a French government would support Quebeckers should they democratically decide to leave Canada.

However, Mr. Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, rejected that policy while dismissing Quebec's aspirations toward independence, associating them to "sectarianism" and to a "hatred of the other."

"Mr. Sarkozy intervened in Quebec affairs by stigmatizing sovereigntists, and we hope Pauline Marois's visit will allow us to erase the bad impression he left," said Patrick Bloche, a socialist deputy and mayor of Paris's 11th district, and also vice-president of the France-Quebec friendship committee at the National Assembly.

"[Mr. Sarkozy] didn't pick commonplace words to make his point. We hope this visit will mark a return to a diplomatic formula which has proved its worth since 1977," said Louise Beaudoin, former International relations minister under successive PQ governments.

Yet some doubts linger after Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, last week at the Quai d'Orsay to discuss Quebec's political ambitions in the aftermath of the election of a PQ government in September. "That was no chance meeting," said Ms. Beaudoin of the Canadian minister's visit.

After meeting with Mr. Baird, Mr. Fabius said that the French government endeavoured to maintain excellent relations with Canada. "The fact that we remain in good terms [with Canada] does not mean that our other relationships will go sour. And so, our relationship with Quebec, on another front, will remain equally excellent," he said.

By putting Canada's friendship on an equal footing with Quebec's, Mr. Fabius stopped short of mentioning "non-indifference." And that omission did not go unnoticed in Canadian media and political circles, which have been dissecting every word uttered by a French politician since president Charles de Gaulle emphatically declared "Vive le Québec libre" from a balcony at Montreal's City Hall in 1967.

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The free-trade negotiations will also figure prominently in the discussions Ms. Marois will hold with Mr. Hollande and other French political leaders. Negotiators from Europe and Canada hope to reach an accord before Christmas, but many sensitive issues are reportedly still unresolved.

For the PQ government, the issue of the so-called "cultural exemption" is central to Quebec's preservation of the French language and culture. A Quebec government wants to keep intact its capacity to support its cultural industries without breaching any commercial accord Canada would sign. "We want the CRTC to continue to be able to impose French song quotas to radios," illustrated Ms. Beaudoin.

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