Fuming at Sarkozy

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, February 6, 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy has stirred the wrath and righteous indignation of Quebec separatist leaders, something that comes all too easily to them. The sovereignty movement was founded on grievance, and always falls back on the role of affronted victim.

Yesterday, Parti Quebecois and Bloc Quebecois leaders Pauline Marois and Gilles Duceppe called a joint news conference in Montreal to announce that they had filed a formal complaint against the French President for comments he made at a ceremony investing Premier Jean Charest with the Legion of Honour -- comments in which Mr. Sarkozy hailed "the universal values we share in Quebec as in France: the rejection of sectarianism, the rejection of division, the refusal to retreat into oneself."

Sectarianism as in Northern Ireland, perhaps. Who knows? Sarkozy didn't elaborate. But it was enough for Duceppe and Marois to freak out. Duceppe accused Sarkozy of "crass ignorance of Quebec" -- and he was just getting warmed up.

After three days of playing the humiliation card, the BQ and PQ fired off a four-page letter to the French embassy in Ottawa, which presumably got right in touch with Paris. "Never has a foreign leader," they wrote to Sarkozy, "shown so much lack of respect for two million Quebecers who are preoccupied with sovereignty. No one has ever used epithets about the independence movement with such contempt as you have."

Well, that's one way to get invited around to the Elysee for a courtesy call next time you're in Paris.

"Mr. Sarkozy should enlarge the circle of people who inform him about Quebec," Marois sniffed yesterday. Now, who could she be referring to? None other than Paul Desmarais Sr. of Power Corporation, staunch federalist and Sarkozy's closest friend in Canada. Before the 2007 French election, Sarkozy vacationed at Desmarais' country estate, Sagar, on the North Shore of Quebec. When Sarkozy won the French presidency, Desmarais was one of the guests at a private victory dinner in Paris. And Desmarais flew to Paris from his winter home in Palm Beach expressly to attend Charest's induction into the Legion of Honour.

There's nothing carefully calibrated about Sarkozy -- what you see is what you get, and he clearly doesn't get, and doesn't care about, the sovereignty movement. Or as Charest later commented, somewhat laconically: "There's no ambiguity there. Mr. Sarkozy, when he speaks, speaks clearly."

The separatist leadership has been annoyed with Sarkozy since last May, when instead of spending Victory Day in Paris as French Presidents traditionally do, he flew to the Canadian cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy to honour Canada's war dead in the company of Governor-General Michaelle Jean.

"You know that we are very close to Quebec, but we also love Canada very much," Sarkozy said then. He then turned to the Governor-General and said, "you have to know that France loves Canada very much." Of the 2,000 Canadians buried there, without distinction as to language or rank, he added: "We love Quebec but we love Canada. 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." You don't hear that every day from the President of the Fifth Republic. Le Devoir, somewhat in a state of shock, observed that never before had a French president "made such a glowing declaration of love for Canada."

Charest, clearly bemused by this week's howls of outrage from home, elegantly positioned himself on the high road as the defender of Quebec's interests. Quebecers, he said, "regardless of circumstance, will decide their future for themselves."

As for Duceppe and Marois, not only do they protest too much, they look like country cousins, a couple of hicks, talking back to the big boys in Paris. And that is humiliating.

 
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