Go-it-alone Quebeckers split over degrees of separation

The Quebec separatist movement is in disarray after a split between Jacques Parizeau, leader of the provincial government, and Lucien Bouchard, head of Bloc Qubcois, the separatist party in the federal Parliament, over what ties a sovereign Quebec should retain with Canada. They also disagree on when the independence referendum should be held.

Mr Bouchard brought the feud between the two rivals for leadership of the separatist movement into the open in a weekend speech to a Bloc Qubcois convention in Montreal.

He said that separatist purists would have to soften their stand to have any hope of persuading a majority of Quebeckers to support them. To allay the concerns of Quebeckers who are referred to as "soft sovereignists", Mr Bouchard told his party it was time to consider a new structure in which a so-called sovereign Quebec would have economic and political ties with Canada along the lines of the European Union. The Bloc also said common political institutions, including a federal parliament, would be needed to oversee shared jurisdictions and common interests.

Mr Parizeau hit back at a press conference during which he made it clear he was in charge. "There may be many leaders of the sovereignty movement ... but ... I'm the Premier of Quebec and I have a certain number of decisions to take." Legally, he commands the high ground, since it is the Quebec government and not the federal parliament that will determine the timing and wording of the referendum.

But Mr Bouchard is by far the more popular politician. He said another approach had to be taken, because the Parizeau strategy was not working.

Mr Parizeau's government attempted to drum up support for independence by setting up a series of commissions around the province to hold hearings on a draft constitution and a draft bill for the Quebec parliament which would declare the province independent.

But the commissions failed to raise support for sovereignty in the polls to above 40 per cent (60 per cent remain opposed or doubtful) and many of the people appearing before them raised questions rather than offered support.

Mr Parizeau has already postponed the referendum, originally promised for June, until autumn. Mr Bouchard has said it should be postponed until separatist forces are sure they can win, perhaps for up to four years; that is, until the end of the current Parizeau mandate. But the Premier is sticking to the commitment during last September's election campaign that a referendum would be held this year.

Mr Bouchard's change of course is recognition that hardline separatists cannot carry the province. By advocating links with Canada, he is addressing Quebeckers' worries about economic security. Mr Parizeau retorted that Mr Bouchard's proposal "won't work, because the rest of Canada would not agree to negotiate such links and, therefore, only full separation is feasible".