Mother country shows reluctance to lend support

In the weeks running up to yesterday's referendum, French television news repeatedly included grainy black-and-white film of General de Gaulle's 1967 trip to Quebec and the ecstatic cheering that greeted his "Vive le Quebec libre!" But the clips were never left to stand as propaganda for the independence campaign: they were carefully placed in their historical context, and the emotive words "Quebec libre" scarcely crossed a French commentator's lips.

Despite the presence of a determined Gaullist at the Elysee and the possibility of victory for the Quebec independence campaign, the mother country consistently showed a strange reluctance to lend support. As referendum day approached, French comment was far more likely to couple the word "libre" with "choice" than with Quebec.

France's official position was described by the foreign ministry in the traditional and convenient phrase as "neither indifference, nor interference". President Chirac said nothing on the subject while the campaign was in progress, except once, and this was not to a French audience, but in answer to a phone-in caller during his appearance on CNN in New York last week, saying: "If Quebec votes 'yes', we shall recognise that fact."

He was widely interpreted, especially by supporters of independence, as meaning that France would immediately recognise an independent Quebec. But his words fell far short of a ringing endorsement, and some believe they were deliberately phrased to allow France a possible mediating role, should Quebec vote "yes".

Mr Chirac's phrasing contrasted sharply with the definite promise he gave to Quebec's Premier, Jacques Parizeau, during his visit to Paris in January. Then, as mayor of Paris and presidential candidate, Mr Chirac pledged that France would be "the first country to recognise an independent Quebec". Since becoming president and taking on responsibility for foreign policy, he has been more cautious.

France has good relations with Canada, and Mr Chirac has clearly concluded that they should not be jeopardised needlessly. Such advice may well have been the result of an extended visit to Canada made in September by Philippe Seguin, chairman of the French National Assembly and close confidant of Mr Chirac.

Any enthusiasm for the Quebec cause in France has come from predictable quarters: language and culture activists, the National Assembly's Paris- Quebec friendship group, and others. One of their concerns is that without independence for Quebec, French language and culture in Canada will not survive.

Some of the campaigners professed themselves disappointed by the lack of official support, especially after Mr Chirac declined to counter President Bill Clinton's call for Canada to remain united. Others, including some Quebeckers resident in France, said they were shocked at the French public's lack of interest. A recent poll showed 56 per cent of those asked to be in favour of independence for Quebec, but only 23 per cent said they knew about the referendum.

French press comment has been deliberately even-handed, on both right and left. The right-of-centre daily Figaro, for instance, yesterday published a front-page commentary by Alain Peyrefitte, the paper's chairman and De Gaulle's biographer, headed Un choix libre. "Quebec," Mr Peyrefitte said, "is free today. Free to cut the Gordian knot of its links with Canada. Free to choose to go on playing out its destiny inside the federation."

He concluded: "We should accompany the Quebeckers on the road they choose - whichever it is to be."