McCartney urges Quebec to 'smoke the pipes of peace'

Sir Paul McCartney was expected to find the appropriate French translation for "Let it be" last night while headlining an outdoor concert in Quebec, in the hope of finally disarming francophone indignation over his invitation to help the province celebrate its 400th anniversary.

To the consternation of Sir Paul (and the rest of Canada), preparations for tonight's concert at Battlefields Park outside old Quebec City, billed as the highlight of the anniversary celebrations, were marred by protests led by a group of 30 francophone politicians and artists.

Sensitivities about its place in Canada and its French-speaking heritage never seem to die in Quebec. But the concert brouhaha prompted the former Beatle to suggest in an interview with Canadian radio that it was time to "smoke the pipes of peace and to just put away your hatchets". There was never any question of his pulling out and fans began queueing for last night's event on Saturday. It was not Sir Paul, after all, who chose the venue.

The celebrations mark the 1608 sailing of the French explorer Samuel de Champlain up the river St Lawrence to the rocky promontory where he and 30 others founded Quebec. But it was at the Plains of Abraham (now Battlefields Park) that in 1759, General James Wolfe defeated General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm to seize "New France" for Britain.

Nearly 250 years later, the ousting of the French lily by the English rose remains the moment that fuels the French separatism that still lingers in bilingual Quebec. It is the sentiment that informs the province's motto, carried still on car numberplates– "Je Me Souviens" ("I haven't forgotten").

Luc Archambault, a Quebec City artist, was joined by the other prominent city figures associated with the separatist movement, including two MPs, in writing an open letter to Sir Paul. "The presence of your English-language music on the most majestic part of Battlefields Park, as beautiful as it might be, can't help but bring back painful memories of our conquest," it began. Mr Archambault pleaded with Sir Paul to show as much respect to the "people of French Quebec" as he has to baby seals in the years when he has travelled to eastern Canada.

Sir Paul responded: "I'm very friendly with the French people that I know. I know people of all nationalities. Hey, I'm friendly with German people. By that argument I should never go to Germany or they should never come over here ]to the UK]".

In an editorial yesterday, The Toronto Star referred disparagingly to the "hysteria" whipped up by those objecting to Sir Paul performing in Quebec. "It's hard to fathom the ageing British rocker as imperialism personified," the paper said before adding: "Comparing supposedly downtrodden Quebecois to battered baby seals is certainly novel."

It was a grey-haired demographic surging into Battlefield Park yesterday. "This isn't just a concert," said Kurt Levins, from Edmonton. "This is more like a religious experience for me. " The only French he wanted to hear were the opening lines of "Michelle, Ma Belle".

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