Bouchard set to take up Quebec separatist fight



They are calling him St Lucien for the way he could apparently do no wrong as he raised the Quebec sovereignty movement from near death during the referendum campaign. Now it appears 90 per cent certain that Lucien Bouchard will continue the independence pilgrimage as the new leader of the provincial government in Quebec.

Mr Bouchard, who leads the Bloc Quebecois party in the federal parliament and is leader of the opposition, made it clear yesterday that he and the separatists do not accept the outcome of this week's referendum on sovereignty for Quebec, which the federalists won by half a percentage point. "The referendum," he said, "showed that sovereignty has gained 20 per cent [since the last referendum in 1980], so why should we quit now when maybe it needs just another little push?"

In the past, Mr Bouchard had frequently stated that if the separatists lost the referendum, he would quit politics and the MPs in his party would leave Ottawa, because their only purpose in the federal parliament was to act as a watchdog for Quebec interests during the lead-up to independence. That has all changed now, Mr Bouchard said yesterday. The close vote and the uncertainty about Quebec's future means there will still be a role for the Bloc Quebecois in Ottawa.

As for his personal future, Mr Bouchard said that he had not anticipated the resignation of Quebec's Premier, Jacques Parizeau, on Tuesday, and he needed time to reflect. But the pressure on him to move to Quebec City is overwhelming. He was almost single-handedly responsible for resuscitating the separatist campaign, which had been floundering under Mr Parizeau, and the nationalists are itching for another fight.

Several senior ministers in Mr Parizeau's government made statements urging Mr Bouchard to come to Quebec and take over the government. They remember his campaign performance, when none of the criticisms raised by the federalists about the dire economic consequences of separation would stick to him. Nor did his comment that white Quebec women were not having enough babies to protect the Francophones' position in society appear to hurt him.

There was even an air of mysticism about Mr Bouchard, enhanced by his return to public life after a brush with death in the form of necrotising fasciitis, the flesh-eating disease, which cost him a leg. His limp and his cane were constant reminders. During the campaign, enraptured supporters would reach out to touch him.

Immediately after the results of the referendum were known, Mr Bouchard and Mr Parizeau promised Quebeckers another referendum soon. But another poll is not possible within the current mandate - at least three or four years.

The Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, has said that Quebeckers and people in the rest of the country deserve some stability. "Canadians must never again be held hostage by Quebec separatists who are bent on destroying Canada," he said. "We cannot play the game that there will be a referendum every six months, or year, or two years." But, assuming Mr Bouchard takes over the provincial government of Quebec, there is nothing to stop him from calling a provincial election in which he will say the issue is separatism.

Running a provincial government may not be so easy, however, since Mr Parizeau's own government has put off the serious financial and administrative reforms required while it fought the referendum. Mr Bouchard would inherit those problems.