June 24th, 2024

French PM talks language, secularism, strong ties in speech to Quebec legislature

By Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press on April 11, 2024.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal responds to a reporters question during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Thursday, April 11, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

MONTREAL – Quebec and France are united by their shared language, culture and values, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told the province’s legislature as he addressed members during a speech on Thursday.

Attal said France wants to help Quebec protect the French language and he praised Quebec’s refusal to give in to defeat.

“Some probably thought that French was destined to disappear from the map of North America, they didn’t know Quebecers,” he said to applause from members of the national assembly.

On a three-day visit to Canada, Attal also drew loud applause from legislators when he expressed his support of state secularism.

While some may say that state secularism is antireligious or a form of discrimination, he said, “our response is that state secularism is the requirement for liberty, is the requirement for equality and the requirement for brotherhood.”

Quebec and France also share support for personal freedoms and freedom of expression, he noted.

“If geography didn’t separate us, then nothing would, because nothing could,” he said.

Attal, 35, the youngest prime minister in French history, focused his speech on youth. The French explorers who mapped and settled what is now Quebec were young adventurers, he said, and he praised the bravery of young Quebecers who fought to defend France in the First and Second World Wars.

The two nations remain linked by their youth, with young people from Quebec attending university in France and vice versa, he said. He added that he wants Quebec and France to work together to fight the biggest challenge for young people now: climate change.

Attal’s was the first speech by a foreign leader at the province’s legislature since then-French president François Hollande addressed the national assembly in 2014. Attal’s speech was also the first by a French prime minister to speak in the legislature since Laurent Fabius in 1984. Fabius was France’s youngest prime minister at the time.

Jacques Palard, an emeritus research director at France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique and the Institut d’études politiques de Bordeaux, said the visit is a sign the French government wants to strengthen relations with Quebec.

“It’s a very significant way of renewing ties that had somewhat fallen into disuse,” he said in an interview.

This is Attal’s first trip outside of Europe since becoming prime minister in January, Palard said.

Earlier in the day, after a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Attal said he supports a policy of “non-interference” and “non-indifference” – known in French short-hand as “ni-ni” – towards the issue of Quebec sovereignty.

That non-indifference was on display, Palard said as Attal was scheduled to meet Quebec Premier François Legault on both Thursday and Friday, as well as address the legislature.

This is the first meeting between a Quebec premier and French prime minister since 2018. A previous bilateral meeting scheduled for 2020 was cancelled.

“There will be no indifference at all, and certainly there won’t be any interference,” Palard said, adding that he doesn’t expect Attal to express support for sovereignty or federalism.

The “ni-ni” policy has been the official French position since 1977 and marked a change of course from that of president Charles de Gaulle who famously backed Quebec’s independence with his “Vive le Québec libre” speech in Montreal in 1967.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who openly supported a united Canada, broke with that policy in 2008, and while his successor François Hollande returned to it, Palard said Hollande was not particularly interested in Quebec.

But Jérémie Cornut, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, said he doesn’t think France has really returned to the “ni-ni” policy and that while France-Canada relations were once strongly influenced by each government’s relations with Quebec, the relationship between Ottawa and Paris has now become “normal.”

Quebec and Canada now have parallel bilateral relationships with France, he said, though Quebec continues to have a special relationship with the country.

Attal and Quebec Premier François Legault will take part in several events in Quebec City and Montreal on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2024.

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