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Drive to Split Off Quebec Hits a Divide

FRUSTRATED by their failed campaign to whip up enthusiasm for Quebec nationhood, the province's two top separatists are now battling each other over a change of course.

Polls are showing support for ''le project'' (independence) stuck at about 45 percent. Low support caused an embarrassing delay in the province-wide referendum separatist Premier Jacques Parizeau promised for this spring, but moved to the fall.

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Voters are concerned that a clean split with Canada will damage Quebec's already-weak economy. And that is the only kind of independence plan Mr. Parizeau has offered -- so far.

That is why Lucien Bouchard, Parizeau's separatist counterpart in Canada's Parliament, last week offered up his vision for a political-economic union with Canada. The idea is roughly patterned after the European Union (EU), with a single currency and a deliberative body that would include half its members from Canada and half from Quebec to oversee joint economic affairs.

Mr. Bouchard's idea has sparked a feud between separatist leaders that has federalists -- who favor Canadian unity -- publicly crowing. But observers say that despite the noise, the battered separatist movement is muting its hard-line message to attract a winning coalition that includes ''soft'' nationalists.

''The separatists have to bring in more undecided voters and broaden their coalition'' by emphasizing economic union with Canada, a foreign diplomat here says. ''Polls show that if voters felt assured there will be an economic union after independence, 55 percent would vote yes'' to separate.

Sitting in a fast-food restaurant with his black motorcycle helmet beside him, Marc Poitras -- hair pointing in all directions -- is exactly the sort of voter separatists must woo.

''I remember my parents crying in front of the television set after the results of the 1980 referendum when independence failed,'' says the University of Quebec at Montreal art student. ''All of their years of hope had been demolished. I am not a separatist. But sometimes I think I would like to see what would happen if Quebec became independent.''

To lure the likes of Mr. Poitras, Bouchard is pushing Parizeau to adopt his virage or turn in direction. In addition to distancing himself last week from Parizeau's plan for outright independence, he has threatened not to campaign if Parizeau insists on holding a vote when polls show a likely defeat.

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''I insist on saying one thing here -- the referendum ... will take place in 1995,'' Parizeau retorted. ''There is one matter on which there must be no confusion. I am the premier of Quebec.''

Yet Parizeau may be bending.

He delayed a key report by 18 regional commissions that tapped Quebec opinion during the past two months. If the report recommends an economic union, this would be a way Parizeau could retreat from earlier hard-line promises on timing of the vote and economic ties to Canada.

''There has to be a partnership,'' says Martin Huneault, a student visiting from Blainville, Quebec. ''Quebec is the principal trading partner of Ontario. Not to have one would be crazy.''

Some analysts agree with Parizeau that Bouchard's virage is mostly mirage. But making it part of the referendum question in the fall might be just the ticket for the separatists.

At least Mario Dumont thinks so. And what Mr. Dumont thinks matters very much, since he fits into the Quebec scene about the same way Ross Perot fits into US politics. As leader of the Action Democratique, a party that won just 6 percent of the vote in last fall's election, Dumont represents a constituency of about 250,000 soft nationalists. The party favors economic association with Canada -- before, not after, independence.

That is a key difference from Bouchard, who advocates such a deal only after a split with Canada. Despite this, Dumont last week publicly lauded Bouchard's plan.

''Bravo,'' Parizeau said when he learned of the remark. ''My goal ... is to ensure the biggest possible support for sovereignty.''

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