With Allies Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

France is supposed to be Canada's ally, but they don't always act like it.
By: /
October 12, 2012

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