Crusader for the French cause

SUN JOURNAL

Quebec: If anyone can breathe new fire into the flickering independence movement, it would be Bernard Landry.

March 09, 2001|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

MONTREAL - These are desperate days for Quebec's separatists, beset by internal bickering and, worse, the increasing tendency of French Quebecers, especially younger ones, to view the movement as irrelevant and doddering.

The Parti Quebecois, dedicated to seceding from Canada, still governs the province that calls itself a nation.

But support for independence - the cause that is the party's raison d'etre - is at its lowest ebb in years. A majority of Quebecers, opinion surveys show, are either more or less content to remain Canadians, or are so sick of the decades-old debate over sovereignty that they're tuning it out.

And separatism's most eloquent champion, Premier Lucien Bouchard, abruptly announced his resignation earlier this year, stunning observers with his emotional mea culpa for Quebec's failure to win independence.

"My efforts," he conceded, "were in vain."

But now comes veteran crusader Bernard Landry hoping to light the blaze anew. The steely eyed 63-year-old provincial finance minister - who helped found the Parti Quebecois in 1968 and has a reputation as the party's most durable warhorse - was sworn in as premier yesterday, to serve out the final two years of Bouchard's term.

Far from a mere caretaker, Landry is viewed as the last great hope for a party corroded by squabbling between moderates and radicals, and by growing apathy toward the "national question," which has dominated politics for nearly 40 years. Quebec is the only Canadian province with a French-speaking majority, 80 percent of its 7 million inhabitants.

It's a safe bet that under Landry there will be little coddling of Quebec's English-speaking community - heavily concentrated in Montreal and forever chafing under the province's strict language laws - much less kind words for Canada.

Landry is a fiscal conservative and something of a social liberal. But right now no one much cares about his views on tax reform or welfare. What matters to supporters is that on the emotional issues of protecting the French language and pressing for nationhood, he brings the fervor of a true believer.

His catechism is this: As North America's only important bastion of French culture, "la belle province" has a grand destiny to fulfill.

"It is absurd to suggest Quebec is a mere province of Canada," says Landry. "Quebec is a nation, just like Sweden or Denmark. ... All we can do is make sure that separation triumphs. There is no way we can go back."

Those are words to warm the hearts of the faithful, who see the lawyer, economist, and educator as more reliably hard-line than the mercurial Bouchard. Possessed of gravitas, if not charisma, Landry also appeals to moderates who fear the tendency of the movement's fringe to embrace ethnic nationalism and even anti-Semitism.

"Landry has what it takes to rally and mobilize his party," writes Josee Legault, a prominent pro-sovereignty commentator, in a column for the Montreal Gazette. "Both the clarity of his sovereignist convictions and his intimate knowledge of the party ... might help bring back the crucial unity the party needs."

As combative as he is calculating and cerebral, Landry has held an extraordinary array of ministerial posts since 1976, when he first won election to the National Assembly, as the provincial legislature is called.

A graduate of the Universite de Montreal law school and the elite Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, where he studied economics and finance, Landry is fluent in French, English, and Spanish. He has been a professor at the University of Quebec and has lectured at universities in France, Mexico, and Africa.

Sometimes cocky, Landry has been described by one admiring writer, Lise Payette, as the "rowdy rooster" of separatism. A more dyspeptic watcher of Quebec politics, author Mordecai Richler, recently described him as sovereignty's "Rottweiler-in-waiting."

In any event, it was fodder for every front page in the land when in January he derided Canada's Maple Leaf flag as a "red rag."

English Canadians howled in predictable outrage.

Landry, claiming to be astonished by the furor, backed off a bit by saying he had been misunderstood - he didn't mean to insult the flag. He had simply meant to warn that, for true-blue Quebecers, sight of the red-and-white emblem was like a matador's cape in front of a raging bull.

"From my apartment in Quebec City, you can see 12 Canadian flags," he fumed to journalists. "In our national capital!"

Many Quebecers have yearned for independence since 1759, when Gen. James Wolfe trounced French forces on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, and New France became part of the British Empire. In a 1995 referendum on independence, the province sent shock waves through Canada by coming within a hair of secession, with 49.4 percent of voters saying "Oui."

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