Quebec Premier to Quit After Secession Loss
Jacques Parizeau, the separatist premier of Quebec, announced his resignation Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his forces fell just short of winning the right to take the French- speaking province out of Canada.
Parizeau, 65, denied that his decision was influenced by the avalanche of criticism that struck him for a speech he made after the ballots were counted, in which he blamed “money and the ethnic vote” for thwarting the nationalist ambitions of French-descended Quebeckers. Canadians across the political spectrum, including his political allies, denounced the comment as bigoted, and Parizeau admitted Tuesday that his words were “too harsh.”
Quebec voters Monday rejected by the tiny margin of 50.6% to 49.4% a ballot measure that would have permitted Parizeau’s government to declare the province a sovereign nation.
The announcement in Quebec City climaxed a day in which Canada began searching for ways to bridge the linguistic, ethnic, cultural and political chasms exposed by the referendum campaign.
The mantra in the power centers of Canada and Quebec on Tuesday was that the vote was a call for change. There was no immediate consensus, however, on exactly what should be done to reconcile the aspirations of the French-speaking province with Canada’s English-language majority. Instead, there was recrimination and political maneuvering.
In fact, the only note of unanimity sounded Tuesday was in condemnation of Parizeau’s Monday night comments on “ethnic” voters, which came in a combative concession speech to campaign workers that promised to put independence to another vote in the near future.
“Appalling,” “divisive” and “very dangerous” were among the terms used to describe the speech. It was seen as an appeal to the kind of nationalism that the separatists have tried to distance themselves from as the population in Quebec, and particularly Montreal, has diversified with an influx of immigrants from around the globe.
Leaders of minority groups denounced the comments as threatening and racist.
Lucien Bouchard, leader of the separatist opposition in the Canadian Parliament, repudiated the remarks in a talk with reporters in Ottawa, the national capital, that preceded Parizeau’s resignation. Bouchard came in for some criticism himself two weeks ago when he told a campaign gathering that French-speaking Quebeckers have the lowest birthrate in the “white race.”
Parizeau said he had decided long before Tuesday that he would resign if the referendum was lost. He said he will stay in office until year’s end to complete the current term of the province’s legislature.
Attention immediately focused on Bouchard, 56, as a possible successor to Parizeau. Bouchard, the most popular and trusted politician in Quebec, already is the de facto leader of the secessionist movement, and his replacement of Parizeau as principal campaigner for the separatists three weeks before the election is credited with making the vote as close as it was. Bouchard declined comment.
Although Canada survived the latest charge by Quebec’s separatists, there was little joy exhibited Tuesday because of the extremely close vote. Canadians were facing the fact that the majority of Quebec’s French-speaking voters, and a majority of the province’s voters outside greater Montreal, voted to quit the country.
And Parizeau and Bouchard hinted strongly that they will go to the voters again relatively soon.
The announcement of the final vote count was followed early Tuesday in Montreal by a clash between hundreds of riot police and up to 1,000 mostly young supporters of separation on St. Catherine Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare.
In Ottawa, the nation’s capital, Reform Party leader Preston Manning held a news conference Tuesday at which he castigated Prime Minister Jean Chretien for bungling the pro-unity campaign. He also accused Chretien of responding to the Quebec challenge “with essentially meaningless cliches.”
Chretien responded later on the floor of Parliament by suggesting that Manning had sat out the crucial campaign and was trying to “score cheap political points” off the national trauma.
Chretien managed to win some praise Tuesday: President Clinton called and congratulated him on the victory.
Surveying the political scene Tuesday, Desmond Morton, who heads the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University here, concluded that while the defeat of the separatist measure gives Canada time to devise a solution, the options are not entirely promising.
“This reprieve will be very hard to use properly,” he said in an interview. “One is reduced to prayer and hopes God will come up with an answer. But I’m not sure she exists.”
* BULLISH VOTE: Canadian markets rally sharply, but concerns remain. D1