New Quebec premier has never wavered

September 15, 1994|By New York Times News Service

QUEBEC -- The new premier of Quebec, who some day wants to be the first president of a Quebec republic, seems more like an aloof Victorian gentleman than the committed, driving separatist he has been for three decades.

The premier, Jacques Parizeau, 64, speaks impeccable English with an upper-class British accent, sprinkling his speech with expressions of yesteryear like "by Jove" and "humbug."

His harrumphs and guffaws, which might seem more at home over whiskey in a London club, have become his trademarks in the rough and tumble of Quebec politics.

Only after giving himself up to image-builders in the seven-week election campaign just ended did he discard his three-piece Savile Row pinstripes for sports jackets and learn to trim often ponderous, professorial speeches into sound bites.

If this reserved man unstiffened to get closer to the average Quebecer, it was for a cause from which he has never wavered. In the 1960s, as one of the young technocrats behind the so-called Quiet Revolution, which increased the economic power of Quebec's French-speakers, he came to believe that federalism did not work for Quebec.

There was a built-in contradiction, he felt. The rest of Canada needed a strong central government for the equitable distribution of social benefits. Quebec had to have a weak central government to allow its distinct society, given new definition by the Quiet Revolution, to flourish.

Unlike many nationalists, who point to years of humiliation of French-speakers by English-speaking Canadians, he bears no ill will to English-speakers.

Indeed, he angered some nationalists a couple of years back with a blunt exhortation to Quebecers to learn English.

"I'll boot the rear end of anyone who can't speak English," he told an interviewer. "In our day and time, a small people like us must speak English."

In Monday's vote, the Parti Quebecois won a solid majority in the Quebec National Assembly, but fell short of 50 percent of the popular vote, which means Mr. Parizeau faces an uphill fight to win the referendum on sovereignty he promises within 10 months.

The Parti Quebecois gathered 77 of the 125 seats in the legislature and the Liberals 47. One seat went to a new party hTC called Action Democratique, which believes in eventual sovereignty but thinks it is not practical today.

In the popular vote, the Parti Quebecois took 44.7 percent, the Liberals 44.3 percent.

Mr. Parizeau joined the provincial government in 1961, in the early days of the Quiet Revolution. In 1976, when the first Parti Quebecois government was elected under Rene Levesque, he became finance minister.

He resigned in 1984 to protest Mr. Levesque's willingness to work out a new deal for Quebec inside the Canadian federation. The government had been shaken by the rejection of separation by 60 percent of the voters in a referendum in 1980.

He took over as the Parti Quebecois leader in 1988.

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