A new era

Sarkozy's speech signals a sea change in the relationship among France, Canada and Quebec

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The Gazette, Monday, May 12, 2008

Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the Fifth Republic of France, was at the Canadian military cemetery in Normandy last Thursday, accompanied by his prime minister, the president of the Senate, the president of the National Assembly, and the Canadian governor-general, Michäelle Jean.

It was an extraordinary occasion in two respects. First, the French president usually spends May 8, the anniversary of Victory Day in Europe, in Paris. That he would instead observe the occasion at the Canadian cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer, is a remarkable gesture in itself.

But it was his speech, and his extemporaneous remarks in departing from his text, that signalled a new era in relations between Canada and France, and turned the page from France's decades-old policy of "non-interference and non-indifference" as to the constitutional future of Quebec.

"We love Quebec but we love Canada," he declared. "We love both. And of those who died here, we didn't ask what region they came from. We knew what country they came from. We didn't even ask what language they spoke. Those who are buried here, even if they didn't speak our language, saved us and helped us."

For anyone who has ever set foot at Bény-sur-Mer, Sarkozy spontaneously captured the meaning of that hallowed ground. English- and French-speaking Canadians are buried there, without distinction as to language or rank. They came ashore at Juno Beach on a certain morning in June 1944, the foot soldiers who liberated France and saved a continent from tyranny.

Sarkozy also declared: "You know that we are very close to Quebec, but I tell you that we also love Canada very much. Our two friendships and fidelities are not opposed. We bring them together so that each can understand what we have in common, and we're going to turn toward the future so that the future of Canada and France will be a future of two countries that are not only allies but friends."

And just to personalize his comments, he turned to the governor-general and said: "You have to know that France loves Canada very much."

Which, altogether, made an historically bad day for the sovereignty movement. Had any other French personality, other than the president, made what Le Devoir called such as "glowing declaration of love for Canada," the sovereignty leaders in Quebec and Ottawa would have denounced it as an affront and an unacceptable intrusion in the affairs of Quebec.

But it's pretty hard to denounce the president of France, without looking like a pathetic country cousin. Sarko loves America. He also loves Canada. He has friends here, notably Paul Desmarias Sr., who has received him as a guest at his country estate near La Malbaie. Sarkozy sees France's role as not making trouble for Quebec or Canada, but encouraging all of Canada's francophones, in other provinces as well as Quebec, to come together.

This is pretty much what the governor-general was saying in Paris at the start of what became a rather triumphal visit to France. Jean became a bit of a rock star in France last week. A leading French paper called her "Canada's almost queen." The French were somewhat caught up in her compelling personal narrative, the descendant of slaves and the daughter of immigrants, an immigrant herself who now represents the head of state.

As well as attending with Sarkozy at Bény-sur-Mer, the governor-general saluted the sailing of the Grande Traversée, the crossing of ships from La Rochelle to Quebec City to mark the 400th anniversary of its founding by Samuel de Champlain.

Instead of celebrating her role in these events as a Quebecer and a Canadian, the separatist leaders took great offence.

In the House last week, Gilles Duceppe had smoke coming out his ears, calling her visit "an insult to the Quebec nation," accusing Ottawa of trying to "usurp the celebrations" of Quebec 400. As for the constitutional monarchy she represents, he derided it as "archaic, folkloric, and ridiculous." Actually it was Duceppe who looked ridiculous.

The separatists were further offended when Stephen Harper said Canada was founded at Quebec, and Champlain was the first governor of Canada. No, no, it was New France of which he was the first governor.

In strategic terms, Duceppe was trying to gain traction on an important identity issue. The fact is, he has been losing altitude ever since the House adopted Harper's motion recognizing the existence of the "Québécois nation within a united Canada" in November 2005. Duceppe's 24-hour campaign for the PQ leadership wasn't a great moment for him, either. Since the 2006 election, the Bloc has lost a third of its support, and is polling in the 20s for the first time.

Duceppe in Ottawa, and to a lesser extent the opposition parties in Quebec City, are trying to create a sense of grievance where none exists, and to provoke a war of red carpets nobody wants any more.

The world has moved on. As difficult as that might be for the sovereignty movement to accept, its leaders should show at least show a touch of class. Spitting on the governor-general is really quite disgusting.

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