Vive Chretien! Canada's Premier Rides Wave of Popularity

Article excerpt

IT WAS THE kind of faux pas fatal to some politicians - or one that could, at minimum, assure ridicule for months.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien was visiting Canadian troops on U.N. peacekeeping duty in the former Yugoslav federation last June when he was photographed striding purposefully through the ranks - wearing his regulation blue helmet backward.

The gaffe, however, only seemed to endear the popular Chretien further to the Canadian public. Not long afterward, his approval rating hit 75 percent in some polls.

When President Bill Clinton arrives today on his first official visit to Canada, he might be forgiven some envy of his host - a slim, unpretentious man with a face weathered by his 61 Canadian winters.

Sixteen months after winning election with about the same percentage of the popular vote as Clinton got in 1992, Chretien is riding a wave of personal popularity unprecedented in modern Canadian history. Canada's economy is growing faster than that of any other industrialized nation, and Chretien's opponents are in such disarray that some pundits refer to Canada as a one-party state.

"They just seem to be two opposites; Mr. Clinton can do nothing right and Mr. Chretien can do no wrong," said Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto history professor and author of "Right Honorable Men," a recent study of Canada's prime ministers.

But Bliss, and many others, believe that popularity will be severely tested this year, beginning almost as soon as Clinton leaves town.

At the end of the month, Chretien's finance minister, Paul Martin, will present a new national budget pledged to restrain Canada's runaway deficit. Martin is expected to cut cherished government programs and increase taxes.

Later this year, Chretien must defeat a referendum in his native province of Quebec calling for a declaration of independence from Canada. …