Juppe’s trade mission to Canada was overshadowed by France’s ambiguous stand on Quebec’s possible succession. Juppe tried to avoid the unity debate, but journalists gave the visit intense media coverage. Officially, France takes an interested, but non-interfering position.
There was a certain predictability in the Parti Quebecois government’s request to the Canadian military to paint over the maple leaf on the steps carrying French Prime Minister Alain Juppe off a plane upon his arrival in Quebec last week. The military ref used. At least, it was no more surprising than the fact that the PQ arranged to have the Canadian flag lowered from its usual position in front of the CP hotel Chateau Frontenac during Juppe’s stay and replaced with the French flag. Given the complicated triangle of emotions that exists among Canada, France and Quebec, equally unsurprising was the intense media scrutiny given to every carefully ambiguous phrase Juppe uttered on Quebec-France relations. “Vive le Canada,” he exclaimed in Ottawa at the start of his three-day visit-but switched, as soon as he crossed into the neighboring province, to “Vive le Quebec.”
Despite Juppe’s apparent attempts to please all sides, the French leader found himself plunged into the unity debate. Ottawa expressed formal satisfaction at his remarks; sovereigntists interpreted them as French support for an independent Quebec after a Yes vote in a future sovereignty referendum. Neither side was wrong. While Juppe appeared to stand by his government’s traditional, stated policy of “non-interference but non- indifference” to the future of Canada and Quebec, he managed at the very least a nudge and a wink towards sovereigntists. “I can assure you that tomorrow, regardless of the choice of your destiny, France will always be at your side,” said Juppe. And evoking former French president Charles de Gaulle’s “historic visit” in 1967-when Ott awa sent de Gaulle packing after his “Vive le Quebec libre” statement in Montreal-he declared that “our country has always been anxious to accompany Quebec on its path and it does so by scrupulously respecting your orientations, because it is you who clea rly hold your destiny in your hands.” While Juppe’s visit was largely intended to boost trade relations between France and, in particular, Quebec industry leaders, that topic was often pushed aside by the media’s traditional preoccupation with the sovereignty issue. “You appear quite discourt eous,” Juppe snapped to reporters at one point during a Montreal news conference. “What, do you want me to interfere in things that concern you?” Some Canadian politicians clearly thought that line had already been crossed. Reform MP Bob Mills said that C anadians deserved an apology for Juppe’s suggestion that France would support Quebec if it chooses to separate. But Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said that France has no interest in intervening, and added that Juppe made it clear that “relations with Canada are proceeding well.”
The intense scrutiny, meanwhile, clearly had an effect. “I miss my journalists,” Juppe was overheard saying after the heated Montreal news conference. Montreal-area Liberal MP Clifford Lincoln says that Juppe has no one to blame but himself. “The trouble with all French leaders is that they are too cute by half,” Lincoln says. “You can’t just play both sides against the middle all the time.” Perhaps. But when it comes to Canada and Quebec, it seems, French politicians always try.