Top independence leader quits as Quebec premier

Surprise move weakens threat from separatists

January 12, 2001|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

MONTREAL - Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, the passionate champion of Quebec independence for the past decade, resigned yesterday in a surprise move that left the separatist movement in tatters and transformed the political dynamics of the nation.

In an emotional address from Quebec City, he cited love for his American wife - who desperately wants him out of public life - and remorse for his inability to gain independence from Canada as the main reasons for his resignation.

But he also lashed out at separatist hard-liners, whose obsessions with French ethnic purity have given Quebec a reputation as racist and anti-Semitic.

Bouchard's departure from politics appears to mark the end of a turbulent era that saw Quebec come within a hair's breadth of quitting Canada in a 1995 referendum on "sovereignty," his preferred term for secession.

"I used all my strength and all my passion," said Bouchard, 62, eyes glittering with tears. "I regret that I did not do better and more."

In English-speaking provinces, his resignation was cause for relief and rejoicing. He is regarded as the only separatist leader capable of breaking up Canada.

"The most effective sovereignist champion is stepping aside," said Industry Minister Brian Tolbin, a former premier of Newfoundland. "Now we can focus on going ahead as one country."

A lawyer, Bouchard entered politics as a Conservative Party member, serving as Canada's ambassador to France from 1985 to 1988 under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and winning a seat in federal Parliament in 1988. He quit the Tories in 1990, however, furious at what he saw as the Canadian government's betrayal of a promise to give Quebec special political status in Canada. He formed the Bloc Quebecois, the federal arm of the secessionist Parti Quebecois.

In 1995, as a separatist referendum push appeared to be faltering, Bouchard almost single-handedly revived the campaign. In the stunning provincial vote, Quebecers came within a few thousand ballots of seceding from the confederation founded in 1867.

Bouchard was elected premier the next year amid predictions that a "winning" referendum was inevitable. But he has never been able to bring the separatist movement back to the emotional level of years past.

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