The Canadian Foreign Minister, Andre Ouellet, tried to play down the importance of a promise by President Jacques Chirac that France would recognise an independent Quebec if separatists gain a victory in next Monday's referendum.
Speaking after a meeting of the Cabinet, Mr Ouellet said he did not think Mr Chirac's comments during an interview in New York with CNN would have much impact on the campaign. "I think obviously some people in Quebec would like to see this as a major endorsement," he said. "If you look at what he said, it's not a major endorsement at all."
Mr Ouellet pointed out that Mr Chirac was responding to a hypothetical question from a caller to CNN. "He said he would recognise a fact. And everyone would recognise the fact [if separatists won]. It would change diplomatic relations."
In Paris, a presidential spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said Mr Chirac had not meant to endorse independence for Quebec, but separatist leaders in the province were quick to pounce on hiscomment. The Bloc Quebecois leader, Lucien Bouchard, said that by confirming a commitment Mr Chirac had made to him a year ago, when the Quebec leader had visited Paris, he was supporting the separatists' argument that Quebec can survive as an independent country.
President Chirac told the interviewer that France would respect the outcome of the referendum vote but would not interfere in the referendum campaign. Mr Chirac had also given the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, an assurance that France would not meddle in the referendum when he attended the G-7 Summit in Halifax in June.
This is in contrast to France's position during the 1980 referendum campaign, when French agents were active in promoting Quebeckers' dissent.
Mr Chirac's earlier promise to Mr Bouchard was made while he was still only the mayor of Paris. The Bloc Quebecois leader had visited France seeking commitments because international recognition would be a crucial for a nascent independent Quebec.
Mr Bouchard also visited Washington but had a frosty reception. While saying formally that Quebec's future is for Quebeckers to decide, US officials, including President Bill Clinton, have made it clear they wish Canada to be stable and united. Last week, the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, went a step further , saying that Quebec would have a tough time negotiating trade deals.
For an independent Quebec, French recognition would have an important moral impact. But the separatists' first priority for formal recognition is the US. It will also be crucial for Quebec's industries to gain access to the North American Free Trade Agreement, an admission that the US and Canadian governments have said will not be automatic.
Quebec has also said it will apply to the World Trade Organisation and that it would like to become a partner in both Nato and Norad, the North American Air Defence pact.
Financial markets have continued to react to polls that place the "Yes" side with a narrow lead over the federalist side. On Monday, the Canadian dollar had lost a full cent against the US dollar, though yesterday the drop had slowed, levelling out at about 72.86 cents.
Three polls will be released this week which could also have an impact, especially on what are considered to be strategic voters who want to give Quebec a strong bargaining position with the rest of Canada but who do not want to separate.Reuse content