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World

Quebec separatists' self-rule not instant option

Separatists in Canada's French-speaking Quebec get ready to take over the provincial government. But a surprisingly narrow victory in elections means the Parti Quebecois faces major obstacles in achieving its goals.

Quebec's new premier-elect Pauline Marois told her supporters following her party's victory that the ultimate goal of the French-speaking "Parti Quebecois" (PQ) was still "to make Quebec a sovereign country."

An outright referendum on independence seems unlikely, though, as Marois would require support from other parliamentary blocs. The left-leaning PQ won only 54 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature in the election on September 4, just four more than the outgoing liberal government under Jean Charest, who lost his seat in the election and resigned as provincial party chief.

Voter turnout was fairly high at almost 75 percent, up from 57 percent in 2008. But it is difficult to say whether this was due to dissatisfaction with Charest's nine-year rule or sudden increased support for PQ.

"The separatist movement in Quebec currently does not enjoy any popularity among the decisive majority," said Uwe Sautter, professor emeritus for contemporary North American history at the University of Tübingen, speaking to DW from Montreal. "There is a wide range of opinions and you can find all shades."

The easy things first

Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes (Foto:The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes/AP/dapd)

Tens of thousands of students took the streets earlier this year to protest tuition hikes.

Marois may now focus initially on legislation easier to push through, Sautter said. The politician said she would seek to overturn the tuition hikes planned by Charest, which had sparked months of nightly student protests. Other legislation would be pushing through better daycare for children and homecare for senior citizens.

But Marois will have to tread carefully on issues of language and identity, such as the province's landmark language law Bill 101. Sautter explained that the PQ would like to limit who can attend English-speaking junior colleges known as CEGEP. PQ policy foresees francophones, who currently often choose English CEGEP, and immigrants being forced to attend French-speaking institutions.

It will also have to be seen how the middle-ground Coalition for the Future of Quebec (CAQ) acts, which won 19 seats. Led by Francois Legault, the CAQ wants to freeze all talk of an independence referendum for a decade and focus on the economy.

Helga Bories-Sawala, a professor at the Bremen Institute of Canada and Quebec Studies (BICQS), said the political constellation for Marois - the province's first-ever woman premier - was "more than dissatisfactory."

"The first woman to lead Quebec is burning for action and her hands are tied," Bories-Sawala told DW.

Nationalist tendencies

Historically, Quebec's striving for independence has been a recurring wish since the originally French-speaking Canada was conquered in the 18th century, Bories-Sawala explained. In recent history, Quebec twice rejected independence in 1980 and 1995, but federalists only narrowly won the last referendum. Marois has said she will only hold a third referendum on independence if a win is assured.

David McCrone, an expert on nationalist movements at the University of Edinburgh, said that the world's changing political and economic structures were having an impact on separatist movements. "The dissociation of statehood has become more blurred," he told DW. In many cases, the process had changed.

"It's not a question anymore of all or nothing, but rather of degrees of self-government," McCrone said. "It's a tactic and an aim."

In Scotland for example, this form of "gradualism" as he called it, was evident. "What you have is not a desired state but rather a means to get there." So one model foresees the Scottish government controlling taxation and welfare, while London holds onto defense and foreign affairs.

"It's a continuum - and that's the debate Quebecers will have in the future," McCrone said.

A pedestrian walks by a graffiti reading 'Kosova Republic!'

Kosovo's separatism is based on different premises.

Kosovo - which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 - was an entirely different issue, though. This posed an extremely complex situation.

"The countries of the Balkans mark a fault line of Europe, with different plates of religion, ethnicity and political control," McCrone said. These had been bundled together since 1918 and were now shifting. "Things are much simpler in Scotland, and also Quebec, where the boundaries are unchanged."

A catch-22 situation

Marois now faces a difficult dilemma, said Bories-Sawala. Due to the PQ's minority government, she won't be able to push through all of the expectations her supporters have of her. Secondly, she will have to disappoint the expectations of those party members hoping for an independence referendum. But Bories-Sawala said she was skeptical of such a vote's success.

"Quebecers are across the board level-headed North Americans, not blazing nationalists," she said. "A majority would certainly only vote for the province's independence from Canada if a particularly intensified situation arose."

She added, though, that even if Quebec were to become independent, the scenario would resemble a North American EU. "Canada and Quebec would be governmentally as different as Germany from Austria, but in many aspects, culturally connected and economically intertwined."

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