De Gaulle and Quebec

Vive le Québec libre!
Charles de Gaulle, July 24, 1967 - Montreal

After his trip to North America in 1960, General de Gaulle foresaw the possibility of a special status for Quebec within Canada, as "a state of French origins, alongside another of British origins". This same year also saw the liberals come to power in Quebec, headed by Jean Lesage, with the introduction of a series of economic reforms; "the silent revolution" also marked a cultural renaissance. Against this background, demands for independence multiplied and a Maison Québécoise opened in Paris in 1961, acting as an official overseas delegation. Under the Federal Constitution, however, relations between France and Quebec could not develop freely; Ottawa asserted its authority in no uncertain terms. The Canadian Prime Minister was ready to make greater allowances for Quebec's special status and to encourage its relations with Paris. The General went further, insisting in 1963 on the idea that "French Canada will become a state", thereby deeming the Canadian state to be a fact. In the course of these years General de Gaulle often appeared to be in an unusual position, supported by a handful of those who, like himself, supported a form of independence for this "branch of the French people". The Quai d’Orsay, in common with Prime Minister Lesage, adopted a stance some way short of this.

The Great Exhibition held in Montreal in 1967 would provide the occasion for de Gaulle to make his position public. "Vive le Québec libre!" is one of the General's phrases that everyone knows. 

Initially the Head of State refused invitations from various Canadian leaders; he could not show support for the Confederation whose centenary was being celebrated that very year, and it was vital to avoid a clash between parties. In the end, however, he allowed himself to be won over, principally by Robert Bordaz, Commissioner General of the French pavilion, who told him that a refusal would be seen as another abandonment by France, akin to that of Louis XV… This argument touched a soft spot compared to the many others advanced both in France and in Quebec, especially as the new Prime Minister Daniel Johnson seemed to be reaping the fruits of the rapprochement between France and Quebec initiated by his predecessor. Calls for independence were gaining a wide hearing and a number of movements began to form, such as the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale which coined the slogan "le Québec libre".

The decision was taken, the itinerary mapped out. General de Gaulle would visit the Great Exhibition in Montreal before travelling to Ottawa; his over-riding priority was to visit the French Canadians. The General left France aboard the cruiser Colbert. On 20 July, the Colbert called in at Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, a French overseas territory that had rallied to Free France in December 1941 in a move that had scandalised the White House. On 23 July, he landed in Quebec and gave a speech in which he stressed that the French and the French Canadians were one and the same. The next day he travelled along the Chemin du Roy between Quebec and Montreal: at every halt he was acclaimed as a liberator by a crowd waving placards reading: "France libre", "Québec libre", "Vive le Canada français!". The General responded in kind, repeating his speech of the previous day. In Montreal, he was welcomed by the mayor, Jean Drapeau, and then made an unscheduled address from the balcony of the city hall to an enthusiastic crowd, ending the speech with the words, "Vive Montréal! Vive le Québec! Vive le Québec libre! Vive le Canada français et Vive la France!", to general stupefaction. After visiting the Exhibition on 25 July and the University on the following day, the General returned to Paris, cancelling the scheduled visit to Ottawa, since the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, saw the speech as unacceptable interference in Canada's internal affairs. The Head of State made his report to the Council of Ministers on 31 July: it was not a matter of denying Canada sovereignty over its entire territory, but simply of aiding the Quebecois who were bound to France by historical links.

The General's words probably sprang from his intention to support the campaign for the emancipation of the "belle province". The flood of letters he received from individual Quebecois prior to his visit , the welcoming atmosphere on the spot, the placards he had seen lining the Chemin du Roy on 24 July, the echoes of the atmosphere of the Liberation of 1944, all combined to inspire the words "Vive le Québec libre!" which were spoken after a brief pause, if contemporary recordings are to be believed. He confided to a number of people, however, that he stood fully behind his words, eager as he always was to go straight to the heart of the matter. According to his logic of realpolitik, he said later, he had to respond to the expectations of the people of Quebec.

The visit had major ramifications. It gave confidence to the Quebecois: the federal government at last begin to apply laws giving French-speakers a greater place in society. Closer relations were forged between France and Quebec in education, culture and science. The Franco-Quebecois Youth Office was set up in early 1968; the French Consulate in Ottawa reported directly to the Quai d'Orsay in Paris and no longer via the Embassy in Ottawa. Nevertheless there were many, on both sides of the Atlantic, who did not share the General's position. He himself had the highest respect for the principle of non-interference, but also for people's right to self-determination; it is in this light that his speech from the balcony should be interpreted, as a means of helping the Quebecois gain recognition of their special standing within an Anglo-Saxon structure.