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PQ is spoiling for a fight with Harper on foreign-policy issues

Get ready, Stephen Harper. Pauline Marois is going to ask for a quarter of the foreign-aid budget, wants Quebec to name its own citizens and plans to tell Quebeckers that your foreign policy is a pretty good reason to separate from Canada.

Ottawa and Quebec City often bickered over international matters when the Parti Québécois was in power in the past. But Mr. Harper has never had to govern through it. And Ms. Marois, the PQ Leader and front-runner to take power in next Tuesday's Quebec election, has a whole new set of attacks.

Ms. Marois hasn't spent the campaign hammering home such issues, because it's not a key election concern for Quebeckers. But if she is elected, she might well spend some time sticking spokes into the wheels of Mr. Harper's foreign policy.

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Past PQ premiers had international clashes with Ottawa. The feds worried Jacques Parizeau was seeking guarantees of France's recognition of an independent Quebec. Bernard Landry was upset he couldn't speak to the Summit of the Americas. But Mr. Harper agreed to give Jean Charest a place at UNESCO, listened to him on trade with Europe and there was peace.

Now, Ms. Marois has signalled foreign policy is an area where she can make political hay by making Mr. Harper a target.

In an immediate sense, Mr. Harper has to worry that Ms. Marois might oppose a free-trade agreement with the European Union that's being negotiated now. But more generally, he has to worry that his foreign policy might become fodder for national-unity disputes.

In this campaign, Mr. Charest, running on economic issues, has talked of opening foreign markets. But polls suggest his time is probably up. François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, has fretted about the province's place in the world, complaining its students don't work as hard as Asian kids and promising public funds to protect its firms from foreign takeovers. But his focus is domestic. Ms. Marois, over the past year, has signalled she's willing to pick fights with Ottawa on international affairs.

For one thing, she's proposing an unprecedented approach to those who come here from abroad: creating Quebec citizenship. That would be flatly unconstitutional and would force Ottawa to contest it.

In an April speech, Ms. Marois argued international affairs are increasingly important to Quebeckers' daily lives – and to the PQ's sovereignty goal. "That's happening at a time when Quebeckers recognize themselves less and less in Canadian foreign policy," she said. "This evolution goes directly against the interests of the Quebec nation."

In other words, she's going to use the differences on international matters as a tool against her target: Mr. Harper. He's changed Canada's foreign policy to make it alien to Quebeckers, she argued. "Resting, at one time, on multiculturalism, balance and cooperation, Canadian foreign policy has become, I would say, bellicose, militant, marked by a unilateralism that is more and more flagrant," she said.

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She attacked Mr. Harper for freezing aid budgets, withdrawing aid from francophone countries and closing Montreal-based agency Rights & Democracy. She said she'd call for Ottawa to transfer to the province "the Quebec share" of the budget of the Canadian International Development Agency.

She also complained Ottawa is spending billions on fighter jets and warships, and that forces Quebeckers to pay a share. A PQ government, she said, would be obliged to defend Quebec against "a foreign policy that is against its national interests." The withdrawal from the Kyoto accord, she said, hurt Quebec's strategic interests. In short, Mr, Harper's foreign policy is a PQ target.

Of course, Mr. Harper can choose to ignore it, knowing that what really matters is whether Ms. Marois's attacks resonate in public opinion. He can hope that if she is elected, she'll only win a minority and be forced to focus on survival. But a PQ government will mean Mr. Harper will have a new factor to weigh in foreign policy.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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