As free-trade negotiations between Canada and Europe are in their final stretch, Quebec has found a new ally in François Hollande's socialist government to tackle unresolved issues that are key to them both. Chief among them is the protection of culture.
"Many of our interests converge. We also share concerns. So it makes sense to take a common approach to these obstacles," Jean-François Lisée, Quebec's minister for international relations and foreign trade, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
But while the PQ government bonds with the French political elite during Pauline Marois's first visit to France as Premier, just five weeks after the provincial election, Quebec is at odds with some of its neighbours at home.
For instance, Canada levies a 6.1 per cent tariff on European vehicles and parts. This tariff protects the automotive industry of Ontario, which mostly assembles cars and trucks designed in the United States or Asia. Europeans hope a free trade deal will eliminate this tariff. "Ontario is against it, but as Quebeckers buy European cars, it would be good for us," the minister noted. Ottawa is driving the free-trade negotiations, although Quebec has its own negotiator, former premier Pierre Marc Johnson. Europeans are keen to bid on public work contracts in Canada, but need the provinces' political backing.
Mr. Lisée accompanied Ms. Marois on her visit with French President François Hollande at the Elysée palace on Monday. The meeting was also an opportunity to underline that the so-called "cultural exemption" is, in Mr. Lisée's words, an "absolute requirement" for Quebec.
The provincial government wants to preserve its ability to support its cultural industries through subsidies, quotas or other means without breaching any commercial accord to which Canada is a party.
The Charest government insisted when Nicolas Sarkozy was president that cultural goods should not be treated as any other goods and services, Mr. Lisée said. But while France agreed at the time, and is a signatory to the UNESCO convention on cultural diversity, its leaders could not reorient the European negotiators' position. "What the new government is telling us is that you can count on us to get that message through," Mr. Lisée said.
Another point of convergence between the centre-left-wing governments of Quebec and France is setting boundaries for the legal options companies might use against governments that change the rules. Such limitations were brought to the North American free trade deal to restrict compensation and eliminate punitive damages awarded to companies.
"Europeans are generally more favourable to investors, but socialists in France have been more critical on issues of investor compensation," Mr. Lisée said, recalling when former prime minister Lionel Jospin rejected the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was abandoned in 1998. However, sticking points remain between Quebec and France that reflect trans-Atlantic differences. For instance, Europeans want to increase their exports of generic cheese to Canada through an increase in quotas. The Quebec agricultural lobby Union des producteurs agricoles opposes such a measure.
On intellectual property, the Europeans want patents on pharmaceutical products to last 15 years. Quebec offers similar protection, but the Marois government wants to be able to shorten the period in which it gives refunds for innovative treatments after generics enter the market.
This was a tradeoff for the research and development the big pharmaceutical companies once conducted in the province. But global restructuring has closed research facilities, and Quebec is reconsidering. "We want to keep the option of changing our mind," Mr. Lisée said. Despite these differences, Quebec's international relations minister remains "moderately optimistic" that a free trade accord between Canada and Europe can be reached before Christmas as planned. "There is good will on all sides, and a willingness to conclude a deal," Mr. Lisée said. The Quebec economy posted anemic growth of 0.6 per cent for the first half of 2012, according to the Institut de la Statistique du Québec. Access to the European market through the elimination of tariffs and the reduction of technical barriers to trade could translate into a 1 per cent boost, Mr. Lisée said.