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With Allies Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

| October 12, 2012
Rough crowd

France is meant to be Canada’s ally. Canada came to France’s defence in the two world wars. We were on the same side during the Cold War. We are partners in NATO. Yet, when it comes to the gravest threat facing Canada – Quebec’s separation – France’s new government seems ambivalent, at best. Does this make it a friend or a foe?

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, meeting with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird on Thursday, chose to remain neutral in the re-emerging national unity debate, noting that France has “good relations with Canada,” but that it also has “very good, warm, and friendly relations with Quebec.” Unfortunately, there are some issues on which neutrality is impossible – where opposing positions cannot be held simultaneously. Supporting Canada while also supporting Quebec’s separatist government is one of them.

Fabius’s sophistries, unhelpful at the best of times, are particularly damaging at the present juncture, just a month after the Parti Québécois’ election victory, when even an amber light from Paris will be taken as a signal of implicit support. His position contrasts sharply with the views of the previous French government, especially former president Nicholas Sarkozy, who openly supported Canadian unity and condemned Quebec separatism as being needlessly divisive when the world needed more cohesion and co-operation. Worse, it echoes a far more troubled period in bilateral relations when former president Charles de Gaulle infamously used his invitation to Canada’s Expo 67 to declare, “Vive le Quebec libre,” ushering in a decade or more of tacit French encouragement of Quebec’s independence.     

What’s most surprising is that the French government’s ambivalence about Canadian unity comes at a time when France is engaged in its own struggle against centrifugal forces – whether in the wider eurozone, as Greece, Spain, and other troubled economies threaten to shatter the single currency, or in France itself, as Corsican separatists, Basque nationalists, or Islamic fundamentalists assert their varied visions of autonomy and separateness. One would have thought that France, if only for reasons of national interest, would have aligned itself unambiguously on the side of the unifiers and integrationists. How would the Elyseé react if Canada’s foreign minister offered a token support for France while expressing its warm and friendly relations with Corsica?

The world is full of real and present dangers – from terrorist attacks to nuclear proliferation to financial Armageddon. But these do not detract from the fact that for Canada, national unity remains a central – if not the central – foreign-policy priority. We need to know who our friends are.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

  • Thomas

    We need to know who are friends are.

    I believe you meant “our”.
    Canada’s unity, and any other country’s unity for that matter, is not a matter of foreign policy. It’s domestic policy. Always been, always will be.

    And knowing who Quebec’s separatist movement’s friends are is going to change what, exactly? You think resources will be spent (by the federal level) trying to silence them, or incapacitate them? Especially when Marois has a minority government?

    I think you are mislead if you think that anyone trying to counter the separatist movement is reaching overseas to solve the problem and “quell the ‘rebelilion’ “.

    • John Hancock

      Thanks very much for pointing out the typo – and for your comment. I have to disagree with you though. If a foreign power is tacitly encouraging the break up of one’s country – as France seemingly did in the late 1960s and 1970s – then national unity is very much a foreign policy aim. Can’t really think of too many more important ones. No one is arguing for a policy to “quell the rebelilion [sic]“, as you put it – at least I’m not. I’m simply suggesting that it’s surely not too much to expect that a long-standing “ally” would say supportive things – or at least avoid saying unhelpful things – when Canada is facing a renewed threat to national unity.

      • Anonymous

        France has already experienced a break-up, it lost a vital part of the French Republic when Algeria broke loose. It wasn’t another colony, it was part of France itself. That would make your article even more interesting.

  • Thomas

    We need to know who are friends are.

    I believe you meant “our”.
    Canada’s unity, and any other country’s unity for that matter, is not a matter of foreign policy. It’s domestic policy. Always been, always will be.

    And knowing who Quebec’s separatist movement’s friends are is going to change what, exactly? You think resources will be spent (by the federal level) trying to silence them, or incapacitate them? Especially when Marois has a minority government?

    I think you are mislead if you think that anyone trying to counter the separatist movement is reaching overseas to solve the problem and “quell the ‘rebelilion’ “.

    • John Hancock

      Thanks very much for pointing out the typo – and for your comment. I have to disagree with you though. If a foreign power is tacitly encouraging the break up of one’s country – as France seemingly did in the late 1960s and 1970s – then national unity is very much a foreign policy aim. Can’t really think of too many more important ones. No one is arguing for a policy to “quell the rebelilion [sic]“, as you put it – at least I’m not. I’m simply suggesting that it’s surely not too much to expect that a long-standing “ally” would say supportive things – or at least avoid saying unhelpful things – when Canada is facing a renewed threat to national unity.

      • Anonymous

        France has already experienced a break-up, it lost a vital part of the French Republic when Algeria broke loose. It wasn’t another colony, it was part of France itself. That would make your article even more interesting.

  • Carl Grenier

    The
    secession of Québec from the Canadian federation is obviously first and
    foremost a domestic matter. As befits a country with longstanding democratic
    institutions, it should be decided by the citizens of Québec in a referendum;
    the terms of the secession should be agreed between the government of Québec
    and whoever speaks for the rest of Canada. The closely related but parallel matter
    of Québec’s accession to full sovereignty is a foreign policy issue for both Québec
    and Canada: an entity becomes a sovereign country when other entities already
    recognized as sovereign countries recognize the fact. In the recent past, both
    Québec (as you assert) and Canada have made overt efforts at securing other
    countries support for their respective points of view: in Canada’s case, recall
    the very prominent declaration made by President Clinton in Canada favoring
    Canadian unity, at the Chrétien’s government’s urging, before the 1995
    referendum.

    Before President
    Sarkozy broke with the “non-interference, non-indifference “policy of past
    French government on the Québec question, the non-interference part was clearly
    addressed to the secession process, while the non-indifference part was
    addressing the sovereign recognition process. It seems that under President
    Hollande , France will be reverting to its traditional stance.

  • Carl Grenier

    The
    secession of Québec from the Canadian federation is obviously first and
    foremost a domestic matter. As befits a country with longstanding democratic
    institutions, it should be decided by the citizens of Québec in a referendum;
    the terms of the secession should be agreed between the government of Québec
    and whoever speaks for the rest of Canada. The closely related but parallel matter
    of Québec’s accession to full sovereignty is a foreign policy issue for both Québec
    and Canada: an entity becomes a sovereign country when other entities already
    recognized as sovereign countries recognize the fact. In the recent past, both
    Québec (as you assert) and Canada have made overt efforts at securing other
    countries support for their respective points of view: in Canada’s case, recall
    the very prominent declaration made by President Clinton in Canada favoring
    Canadian unity, at the Chrétien’s government’s urging, before the 1995
    referendum.

    Before President
    Sarkozy broke with the “non-interference, non-indifference “policy of past
    French government on the Québec question, the non-interference part was clearly
    addressed to the secession process, while the non-indifference part was
    addressing the sovereign recognition process. It seems that under President
    Hollande , France will be reverting to its traditional stance.