Jean François Lisée reached the leadership of the Parti Québécois one year ago. Twenty-two years ago he was the young strategist behind the referendum that the independentists lost by just 54,288 votes. Only these votes were needed to make Quebec independent and although the result brought years of discontent, the sovereignty of Quebec is now strongly on the rise again and he is back in the front line.
—The first referendum for the independence of Quebec was in 1980, the second one in 1995. Many years have passed since then, and where is Quebec today?
—There is a situation that we might call contradictory. As a country, Quebec is much stronger in economic and cultural terms than it was then. We have a much more open and diversified economy, for instance; but by contrast Quebec’s political weight in Canada is much smaller. Canada has unsuccessfully spent the last thirty years trying to accommodate the reality of Quebec. The constitutional failure is chronic because Quebec does not accept the Canadian constitution; this is one part of the photo. But on the other hand, in Quebec we have an inept and corrupt government and it is a priority to change it.
—Is this why the idea of a second referendum on independence is not priority?
—We believe we have to adapt to the rhythm of the people of Quebec, and so we think that first of all this incompetent government has to be changed and the price to be paid is surely not to have the independence referendum immediately. But our position is clear: we need a first legislature in government to recover the country and then, in the second legislature, we will undoubtedly put forward the independence referendum, our roadmap is clear.
—You were on Jacques Parizeau’s team that brought Quebec very close to independence. Over these years, how many times have you thought about what went wrong?
—You always think you could have done better and when you talk about a referendum with such a close result as ours, it is inevitable to think that anything, even the smallest thing, might have changed the result. Obviously.
—In Quebec and Scotland, the referendums have been really fifty-fifty, very much unlike Lithuania, Slovenia or Timor. What do you think that means?
—That is normal. A referendum on independence in an advanced and democratic state appeals more to the project than to emotions. The option of independence amongst us is a rational option and that means that society expresses itself in far greater plurality.
—Any lesson for the upcoming Catalan referendum?
—Just think that the campaign is very important, the campaign and the days of the campaign. It is precisely for this that we talked about what in our case was a rational decision. There is a part of the electorate that does not take a decision until the last moment and only because in some way, as they have to vote they feel they are forced to decide. This means that it is very difficult to know their opinion until the time of the voting itself. But in the case of Catalonia I see a very important difference.
—The attitude of the Spanish government, obviously. Today in Catalonia, eighty percent of the population is in favour of the right to decide and more or less fifty percent would vote for independence. The majority in favour of the right to decide is really comfortable and secure, but not so much independence. But if Madrid turns the referendum into a referendum on the right to hold a referendum, then the chance of victory for independence is very high, much higher because part of this eighty percent, even if they do not believe that independence is the best option, will vote for independence to defend their right to hold a referendum.
—It seems impossible that the Spanish government could ignore this…
—The government of Madrid is driving Catalonia to independence, or at least that is how it seems to me. It would be very different if it accepted democracy and made a specific offer of self-government for the Catalans inside Spain.
—The international community is beginning to show concern…
—After the referendum in 1995 one of my jobs was to check the details of what had happened and I had the chance, for instance, to read the cables that the chancelleries sent their governments. You can be sure that at this time all of the governments of the world are receiving these kinds of cables and are sure to be saying that the Spanish government’s position is untenable. Another matter is that the international community does not want problems and Catalan independence is a problem. Everyone will try to stop you doing it; but if you do it, I think that all of the governments of the world will have the report from their diplomats explaining that it is the Madrid government’s position that has made any agreement impossible. Sure.
—The disqualifications of politicians, even without trial, are something unheard of in the west…
—And this is very clear. In September when the world’s press comes to cover the referendum, what do you think its readers will think when they find out that here there are politicians detained or disqualified for suggesting a referendum? That is not acceptable in democracy; it’s as simple as that.
—In fact when questioned by the Bloc Quebequois in parliament, even the Canadian government recognised its discomfort with the Spanish position.
—The decision to judicialise the Catalan process is extraordinary; it did not happen either in Canada or the United Kingdom. Madrid’s strategy will not work because, even knowing that the international community would prefer not to have an independent Catalonia, it can never prefer this over jeopardising democratic principles. I am sure there are no doubts over this in the Chancelleries.
—Let’s go back to Quebec. Are there fewer independentists today than thirty years ago?
—The independence movement has a very solid electoral base, between thirty and forty percent of voters, and in general terms the sensation that we are living another reality is very strong. When you ask many youngsters whether they are for independence they say they are not, but if you ask them whether they are Canadian they say they are not either, that they are Quebequois. I think that electorally we have not had another opportunity. We lost the referendum and the citizens thought that Canada would do something to mend the rift; negotiate something or suggest something. It was logical to think that would happen and that therefore Canada had to be given a chance to tell us what it wanted to do. But the years pass and nothing has been done, we have been given no answer, quite the opposite. We might say that in some way the majority of people in Quebec are no longer Canadian in mind, but we still have to find the way to turn this into votes. If we put it in terms of divorce we might say we do not sleep in the same room, but we have yet to take the decision to leave.
—The Parti Québécois has had a few very complicated years. A year ago you came to the leadership and have started a process to rejuvenate the party and to open up to the minorities.
—That’s what we have to do. If the elections give us 35% of the votes we cannot make independence with that, so we have to broaden our base. We have ninety thousand militants, which is more than all of the other parties together. Our youths have three times more militants than any other, but our image does not reflect this. We appear before the electorate as the party of parents and we need to change this perception.
—You have started a process of mentoring in which a young politician works shoulder-to-shoulder with a veteran. What does that bring?
—I was young working alongside Jacques Parizeau! I find this very satisfying today. Being a mentor does not mean you teach, but rather that you share your experience and in this sense I am very impressed by the confidence these youngsters have in me, very impressed.
—Quebec’s cultural diversity is another key theme in this reformation of the party…
—Obviously, yes. Montreal, particularly, is a tremendously diverse city and this must be reflected.
—But you have a singular position on this. You reject multiculturalism and talk about ‘cultural concordance’. What does that mean?
—We believe that if you want to contribute to the world, you can only do so with your own personality that makes you different in the others’ eyes. If this is not so, what value can you bring? In Quebec we have a language, French, we have values created over the years and we have a way we do things. Secularity, women’s rights and democracy, for instance, are values that we will never question and that we want society to always respect. This is what we are in Quebec, and that is what we want to continue being, but obviously changing and constantly adapting to reality.
—We simply believe that the people of Quebec feel comfortable with these values and we want to preserve them. If you do not accept French or believe that women are inferior beings, then maybe Quebec is not the place for you.
—The recent attack on a mosque in Montreal has stirred up this discussion. You yourself said that maybe you had to soften your tone and make an exercise of self-reflection…
—Yes, obviously an outbreak of extraordinary and unusual racism such as this makes you think and reflect on everything you do. This is why we have proposed twenty measures against racism that the Quebec government does not want to apply. We want there to be rules accepted by everyone; we want to achieve a consensus of citizens around the idea of a secular and plural society. But this is one of the things that the present government of Quebec does not want to do and which forces us to focus on a government alternative for 2018.
—The Partit Quebequois has historically been perceived as social democratic. With recent years’ changes in the leadership there is a certain confusion over this…
—No. We are social democratic and ecologist. In fact there is more discussion over how to achieve independence than over our social position. We are social democrats and ecologists. We do not want to drop taxes, but rather offer better social services and we are solidly opposed to projects such as the Alberta oil pipeline that they want to drive across our country.
—An oil pipeline?
—Yes, it is a serious problem. Justin Trudeau has an excellent image but his works are not so good. He aims to build a large pipeline to drive and sell oil from Alberta, which is the most polluting in the world, and he wants to pass precisely through Quebec. The real Trudeau is a problem for our country beyond the image. In Ottawa any proposal is toxic that includes improvements or simply support for Quebec. These days, for instance, the air-space industry of Quebec needed support that did not come from Canada in the end. It is a serious problem.
—Quebec’s sovereigntism has fractured in recent years with the appearance of Québec Solidaire and the Coalition Avenir. Perhaps you have come to Catalonia to see how we do it here with three parties?
—Certainly! We are very interested in how you are doing it here, in fact we have created a platform, called Oui!, in which all of the independentist parties and social organisations are together, and this is based on your example, copying you. In this sense, one of the important things for which we need the first legislature of changes before holding a referendum is because in Quebec we need to change the electoral law from majority to proportional to accommodate this sovereigntist plurality better than now
—You have spent a few days in Catalonia, have met a few people, including president Puigdemont. You have taken part in an ERC act, have met businesspeople and institutions and have shown great interest in small and medium-sized enterprise. What image of our country are you taking away?
—Catalonia is very dynamic. Barcelona is a true explosion of optimism, dynamism and youth, it is impressive to see it on the ground. I am not sure you see it as we do from outside, but you have enormous confidence in yourselves and there is something in the air that tells you the future is being written in this country.