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Quebec Leader's Illness To Slow Separatists' Fight

IN Canada last week, it became clear how much clout one man - Lucien Bouchard, Canada's opposition leader in Parliament - may have over a nation's future.

Mr. Bouchard, a popular Quebec politician and ardent separatist, became ill suddenly Tuesday. Reports of his near-death condition on Thursday stunned Canadians and Quebeckers alike.

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Only days earlier, Bouchard had declared that the ``battle has begun'' for Quebec independence. Besides starting off the separatist campaign, Bouchard is to lead the charge for Quebec nationhood in Ottawa, pressing Prime Minister Jean Chretien's federalists at every turn.

On Friday doctors said Bouchard had beaten the illness and could return to political life in three to four months. But the incident could affect the fight for Quebec independence, possibly delaying next year's referendum until 1996.

Bouchard's continued presence is vital for separatist forces. Selling separatism would likely be impossible for separatist Premier Jacques Parizeau, who was elected in September, but is much less popular. In a poll two weeks ago, only 32 percent of Quebeckers said they would vote ``today'' for independence.

If Bouchard returns to politics as expected, political analysts say he will do so with a new status - one of near-hero stature to Quebeckers. His personal trial will possibly make him an unassailable target for federalists, they say.

``He is a big personality in Quebec - one that is loved by people whether or not they share his political opinion,'' says Claude Gauthier, vice president of research for a Montreal polling firm. ``He will come out of this tragedy larger than life.''

Television and radio talk shows have been saturated with well-wishing for Bouchard.

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