French Nod to Solo Quebec Boosts Separatist Leader in Run-Up to Referendum Visit to Paris by Province's Premier May Help Woo More 'Yes' Votes in Ballot Planned in Quebec Later This Year

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QUEBEC Premier Jacques Parizeau arrived home from Paris Saturday in high spirits after receiving exactly what he went to France for -- a clear endorsement of his plan to hold a referendum in Quebec this year on whether the province should separate from Canada.

The endorsement of prominent French politicians gives Mr. Parizeau another tool to persuade undecided Quebeckers to vote "yes," assuaging their worry about political and economic isolation in an independent Quebec. This comes at a time when the referendum, as a means of separating from Canada, has been under growing attack from legal scholars and political scientists.

"In the last few weeks in Canada, there's been a furious debate about whether Quebec has a right to a referendum {on independence}," he told reporters Friday in Paris. "I had to come to Paris to hear a clear conviction that it's the vote of the people that determines legitimacy. I'm very grateful for the sense I've found here. It's immensely refreshing."

Since then-President Charles de Gaulle's cry of "Vive le Quebec Libre!" to a cheering crowd of Quebeckers during a 1967 state visit, Parizeau and other separatists have looked to France for moral support on Quebec nationhood.

Yet as often as not they have been frustrated as French government officials, while warm, have spoken carefully -- if at all -- of the prospects of independence for Canada's second most-populous province.

"General De Gaulle could get swept away in his speeches," says a French Foreign Ministry official. France's official policy "has been and remains a policy of noninterference, non-indifference."

But such moderation was replaced by warm embraces throughout Parizeau's six-day trip after Canada's Ambassador to France, Benoit Bouchard, chided French politicians for welcoming Parizeau. The move backfired, shifting sentiment to Parizeau's favor.

Debate still rages between Quebec officials and the Canadian government over what was meant by the technically ambiguous remarks of senior French politicians. But regardless, the interpretation of the Quebec news media that the statements implied diplomatic recognition of Quebec will give Parizeau straws to grasp in his independence campaign.

"French-speaking nations, and particularly France, would naturally recognize the new situation" following such a vote, said Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris and presidential candidate.

Prime minister Edouard Balladur, the front-runner in the presidential race, was only slightly more circumspect. "The prime minister {Parizeau} made his recommendations. I have no doubt they will be followed," he said, referring to France's recognition of Quebec after a "yes" vote.

Such statements came within context of the heavy symbolism favoring an independent Quebec. Upon arriving on Jan. 23, Parizeau was greeted as a head of state, the Republican Guards in formation on the steps of the National Assembly building to receive him. Parizeau was also given the extra honor of passing through the Napoleon Gates, not used in ceremony since 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson entered there. …