QUEBEC CITY, CANADA — To his admirers, Jacques Parizeau is the avuncular, albeit formal, ex-college professor and economist, focused with brilliant intensity on a nearly 30-year-old dream of making his native province of Quebec a new nation, independent from the rest of Canada.
To detractors, he is an arrogant fantasist, dwelling on archaic rivalries between English- and French-speaking Canadians and bent on breaking up a country that a recent U.N. study ranked the world's most livable.
Parizeau, 64, was elected premier of Quebec on Sept. 12, on a platform of independence and a promised province-wide referendum on the issue within 10 months. It should have been a moment of undeniable triumph for Parizeau, leader of the Parti Quebecois, which has long advocated separation as the best route for preserving Quebec's French language and culture in North America. Instead, his victory was immediately cast as ambiguous, at best.
The Parti Quebecois won only 44.7% of the popular vote, well below what was forecast. That was good enough for 77 seats in the 125-member provincial Parliament, only because the opposition was split between two other major parties, the Liberals and the Parti Action Democratique. Meanwhile, polls show support for independence--or sovereignty as it's called here--dropping to between 32% and 42% of the Quebec electorate.
The decline troubles some separatists, notably Lucien Bouchard, opposition leader in the Canadian national Parliament and Parizeau's sometimes uneasy partner in the movement for Quebec sovereignty. Bouchard has said there shouldn't be a referendum until the separatists are sure they can win. (This interview was conducted before Bouchard's recent life-threatening illness.)
If Parizeau is disheartened, however, he does not show it. His only concession to the polls is a slight adjustment in his target date for the referendum--now slated, he says, for some time in 1995. As is his custom, he concedes few obstacles to Quebec independence, whether it's the large public debt it would inherit or the concerns of Quebec's influential English-speaking minority.
Parizeau's politics extend into his personal life. A widower with two children, Parizeau, in 1992, married Lisette Lapointe, an activist in his political party. Talking recently in his office in the provincial capital, Parizeau speaks flawless English with a plummy accent--perhaps influenced by his study at the London School of Economics. He is fond of irony and underlines it with deep laughter, but the dominant impression is of the former professor imparting a lesson.
Question: Most Americans probably see Canada as a success and a good place to live, even with its problems. Their first question to you might be, why do you want to leave it?
Answer: It's something that has matured for a long time, and that's why it takes such a democratic form. There is no violence. Everything is concentrated on the vote . . . .
Here you have a lot of people living in a country that has an excellent reputation abroad, but we just refuse to live with each other . . . . Quebeckers have had a long history on this continent, and they've been shoved, moved, into all sorts of situations within Canada. When the Canadian confederation took place in 1867, a lot of people in Quebec said, "Could we have a referendum?" They said, "Oh, no. In the British tradition, the Parliament can do anything, excluding changing a man into a woman, and, therefore, no referendum"--and that was that. We entered confederation.
This time around, we're nice. We say we're going to have a referendum before we get out. That's a remarkable improvement in relation to the shoving that we've known in the past . . . . People (in Quebec) are rather confident that they can define their own future, and we've come to the point where we're going to define our own future. So it's a long, long evolution, with times when it was one step forward, two steps backward, and times when it was two steps forward, one step backward. But we're coming to an end.
Q: Is it still your intention to have the referendum on independence in 1995?
Q: The latter part of '95, the early part of '95? When?
A: On the path of history, who gives a damn?
Q: The latest polls show opposition to sovereignty at around 60% of Quebec voters, and no sovereigntist party or position has ever won a majority vote in Quebec. Given that, what's the source of your optimism that you will win a majority vote for independence?