The man who holds the future of Quebec and possibly of Canada in his hands, the 58-year-old lawyer and career politician Lucien Bouchard, was sworn into office as leader of the Quebec provincial government yesterday, vowing to use his new position to pursue his goal of secession.
He is faced, however, with an immediate budget crisis and a strong message from the public opinion polls that Quebeckers are tired of elections He has promised he will spend the immediate future concentrating on rebuilding the economy and attempting to tame a soaring deficit before putting separation to another electoral test.
As the inaugural ceremonies were taking place in Quebec City, the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and 200 of his Liberal MPs and senators were sequestered in Vancouver for a brainstorming session, seeking strategies to counter the charismatic Mr Bouchard and the increasing support for separatism in Quebec polls.
The federal Liberals are hoping that the realities of running the near- bankrupt Quebec government will take some of the shine off Mr Bouchard, and there were some early warning signals about what the new premier is facing at the weekend convention which proclaimed him leader of the Parti Quebecois. Mr Bouchard, who formerly led the Bloc Quebecois, the group of separatist MPs elected to the federal parliament, had pushed aside the retiring Quebec premier, Jacques Parizeau, mid-way through last autumn's referendum campaign as the independentistes appeared to be heading for certain defeat.
With emotional rhetoric and a savage personal assault on Mr Chretien as a "traitor" who had sold out Quebeckers to Ottawa, Mr Bouchard is generally credited with turning the faltering campaign around, bringing support for Quebec's independence to within half a percentage point of victory.
His next step, from referendum campaigner to Quebec Premier, is the direct result of the bizarre performance by Mr Parizeau on referendum night, when during an angry speech, he blamed the separatist loss on "big money and ethnics". Mr Parizeau's remarks were seen as a racist insult, and powerful members of his Party Quebecois caucus forced him to quit.
But some of those same power brokers warned Mr Bouchard last weekend that he should not tamper with Quebec's generous social welfare when he attempts to regularise provincial finances.
The new premier has called for a period of belt-tightening and warned of funding cutbacks for health, welfare and education, because he does not want to go ahead with a tax increase that had been planned by Mr Parizeau.
This amounts to something of an about-face from Mr Bouchard's rhetoric during the referendum campaign, when he had argued that a separate Quebec was the best defence of welfare from the deficit-cutters in Ottawa. Quebec's welfare payments are higher than most other provinces, and its civil servants are paid about 20 per cent more than federal counterparts.
In an effort to upstage Mr Bouchard's swearing-in, Mr Chretien shook up his cabinet last week. Four senior ministers, three of them Quebeckers, were forced to make way for new blood. Out of character with his usual caution, Mr Chretien reached outside Parliament to appoint a 40-year-old University of Montreal political scientist, Stephane Dion, as his new minister of inter-governmental affairs, in charge of the national unity issue. He is already being compared with Pierre Trudeau.
A staunch federalist, Mr Dion has already warned Mr Bouchard that if Quebec can split away from Canada, then Quebec is also divisible. The strongly pro-federal Montreal area as well as the northern lands inhabited by the equally federalist native Crees would have an equal right to split away from Quebec to rejoin Canada.