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L'evesque tries to drop Quebec separatism -- at least for now

The Parti Qu'eb'ecois will decide this weekend whether it prefers independence over power. The separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois (PQ) has ruled the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province since November 1976. It has always been in favor of taking Quebec out of the Canadian confederation, but it lost a provincewide referendum on the issue in May 1980.

The debate within the party is whether to run the next provincial election on the issue of separatism. (Separatists prefer the terms independence or sovereignty.) The hard-liners want to stick with the issue. The pragmatists who led the party to two election victories want to abandon the option, at least temporarily.

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Quebec Premier Ren'e L'evesque will make the case for abandoning separatism as an election issue to about 2,000 delegates at the PQ convention to be held in Montreal this weekend. One informal poll shows that two-thirds of the 122 PQ districts support Mr. L'evesque's side of the argument.

Getting rid of separatism as the main election issue could give the party a chance to win the next election, which could be held anytime but must be held by April 1986. The PQ has been behind the provincial Liberals in the polls. Many Quebeckers have tired of debating the separatist issue, but they might vote for a party of French Canadian nationalism, which the PQ would become without the separatist plank in its platform.

Dr. Camille Laurin, a former Cabinet minister who now sits in the National Assembly in Quebec City as an independent, leads those hoping to block L'evesque's plan. Dr. Laurin compares the battle to the last part of a hockey game: ``The third period is on Jan. 19th. We have often seen players score three goals in two minutes in the third period.''

Ironically Ren'e L'evesque has his poor health as an ally. Earlier this month he collapsed from exhaustion. The sympathy vote may be the edge he needs at the convention.

There appears to be no threat to L'evesque's leadership of the party at this time, but Laurin and other dissidents have not ruled out forming a new party to fight for the separatist cause. That would split the nationalist vote and almost ensure victory by the provincial Liberals.

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