Maybe Segolene Royal is not ready for the world stage just yet

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Who is Segolene Royal and why was she speaking approvingly of "the sovereignty and liberty of Quebec" after a meeting with Andre Boisclair in Paris on Monday?

Well, she's the Socialist Party's candidate for president of France, the darling of the French media, and while she hasn't quite got a lock on the job, she's expected to be on the second ballot in May's runoff election.

Recent polls indicate she's running neck and neck with Nicolas Sarkozy, the standard-bearer of the Union Mouvement Populaire, the governing right-wing party of President Jacques Chirac.

Her comments on Monday, tossed off in response to a question by a Quebec journalist, indicate that she hasn't been very well briefed on the Quebec-Canada file, doesn't know much about it, or is insensitive to the sensitivity of it.

"What are your feelings about Quebec sovereignty?" she was asked, a fair question given that she was meeting with the leader of the Parti Quebecois.

"They're in accordance with our shared values, that is to say the sovereignty and liberty of Quebec," she said. She went on: "I think the influence of Quebec and the place it has in the hearts of the French point in that direction."

Since she could be installed in the Elysee as president of the Fifth Republic five months from now, these comments are not to be taken lightly.

"Segolene Royal provokes a diplomatic storm," headlined La Presse yesterday, while Le Devoir headlined that she was posting her "sovereignist sympathies."

Welcome to a serious diplomatic incident. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper quickly issued a pointed rebuke. "Experience teaches us that it is highly inappropriate for a foreign leader to interfere in the democratic affairs of another country," he said in a same-day statement issued by his office. "We look forward to marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of Canada at Quebec City with the next president of France."

That would be Quebec, 2008.

Harper added: "We expect in turn that the next president will display an understanding of our shared history, and the respect for Canada and Canadians that such an important partnership requires."

Ooph!

In Montreal, Premier Jean Charest didn't mince words. "The future of Quebec," he declared, "will be decided by Quebecers, no one else." Or, in this newspaper's succinct headline: "Butt out."

Charest is on his way to Davos for the annual World Economic Forum, and will get an opportunity to make this point again when he stops in Paris on the way home.

It should be noted that President Chirac is on very good terms with both Charest and Harper. The French president has vacationed at Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships, where Charest has a country home. And at last fall's summit of la Francophonie, he want out of his way to praise Harper's command of French.

In Quebec City, federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion noted "the problem with her declaration is that we are free. We have been free longer than the French because we had responsible government while they were still in the midst of debating empires and revolutions."

Well put. But inferentially, Dion was also making a strong case for renouncing his dual French citizenship. He can't be both the aspiring leader of one sovereign country, and a citizen of another one. How would that go down in a meeting with French foreign-affairs officials at the Quai d'Orsay or, for that matter, in a meeting with Royal in the event she wins the Elysee? It's not an impertinent question.

Royal's provocative comments were a sharp departure from the position established by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s, namely "non-interference and non-indifference" to the Quebec question. Thus, when Chirac was asked by CNN's Larry King during the 1995 Quebec referendum what France would do in the event of a Yes vote, the French president said it would not be indifferent to such a result.

In Royal's own party, Francois Mitterrand, during his remarkable 14-year presidency from 1981 to 1995, went out of his way to cultivate good relations with three Canadian prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien. This relationship was especially evident as a counterweight to American dominance at G7 summits.

Quite apart from interfering in the sovereign affairs of this country, Royal's remarks might raise some question of her readiness to step onto the world stage as the voice of France. As Dion noted: "It hampers her own credibility."

It certainly does.

 
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