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As Quebec Separatist Support Sinks Leaders Work to Rally 'Oui' Votes

WITH less than five weeks until a historic referendum on whether Quebec should separate from Canada, Quebec's separatists are struggling to hold their ranks together and reignite enthusiasm for a new nation.

''You ask me if I think we will win - I hope so, but I'm not sure it will happen,'' says Bernard Campeau, waiting with hundreds of others in the late fall sunlight at a separatist rally Sept. 24 in the lush Mount Royal Park overlooking Montreal.

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Mr. Campeau says he is definitely voting ''yes.'' But he and other faithful among the yes or pro-independence forces, led by provincial Premier Jacques Parizeau, are becoming worried.

The campaign this month that was supposed to stir nationalist sentiment in ever-wider circles seems to be faltering. And criticism of Mr. Parizeau within his own ranks is growing along with evidence of a provincewide slide in support for Quebec independence.

Recent polls show support for Quebec nationhood slipping badly - from about 50 percent favoring a yes vote a few weeks ago to about 45 percent today. Parizeau has noted that he needs only ''50 percent plus one'' to make Quebec a country.

Yet while ''no'' or pro-federation forces rejoice, the 15 percent of voters still undecided means the referendum battle could still turn before Oct. 30, separatist insiders insist.

Micheline Jourdain is one of Quebec's 500,000 or so undecided voters now the focus of both yes and no forces. The no side is led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and former Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson. Mr. Johnson has warned repeatedly that a yes vote would be a vote to separate from Canada - not a vote to negotiate a looser form of federation, which he says is what the separatists have tried to imply in the wording of the referendum question.

But for Ms. Jourdain the matter seems clear enough. Fed up with decades of debate over whether Quebec should split off, she is inclined to vote for nationhood - but isn't quite sure.

''There are so many economic uncertainties,'' says the high school history teacher at the rally. ''Still, I feel that I may vote 'yes' - in favor of a new country - to settle the matter once and for all.''

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That sentiment is music to the ears of separatist organizers. But it is a song they need desperately to hear from many more undecided voters across the province. Unless the emotions of French-speaking Quebeckers can be charged, the vote will be lost, analysts say.

The main battleground now is Montreal, where most of the undecided voters live. Yet even in the northern heartland of Quebec nationalism - the Lake St. Jean-Saguenay region 130 miles northeast of Quebec City - there is indecision and a glum feeling that it may already be too late to rally nationalist fervor.

''Perhaps Quebec really isn't ready to become a country,'' says Euldege Tremblay, a retired aluminum worker in Chicoutimi. ''I'm afraid of separating because of the economic consequences, but I'm afraid of staying in the federation also.''

Much of the gloom and, lately, mild dissension, has to do with the inability of Parizeau's campaign to catch fire. Last week members of his ruling Quebec Party (PQ) set out to whip up TV viewers' enthusiasm with a vigorous debate on the referendum. Instead, the PQ was thrown on the defensive by a scandal involving one of its top officials. After that miserable week, PQ members of the provincial parliament held an informal caucus in which they reportedly blasted Parizeau and his advisers. Even hardened s eparatists fretted that the Oct. 30 referendum might not be winnable. ''Unless there's a Plan B that they haven't told us about, our best hope at this point is for a miracle,'' an unhappy PQ organizer told the Montreal Gazette.

Indeed, there are indications that the PQ, feeling its back to the wall, may now jab heavily on the most emotional hot button in the province: language. Anglophone and Francophone Quebeckers have in the past year enjoyed a truce on the language debate, despite continuing restrictive legislation that prohibits English usage.

Both Parizeau and separatist Block Quebec leader Lucien Bouchard have referred recently to the notion that, if the no side wins, then Montreal - where Anglophones and immigrant Quebeckers congregate with Francophones - may have a French-speaking minority in only a few years.

To finally ignite some passion, rallies were held Sept. 24 across the province, including the one on Mount Royal. Fiery speeches were delivered by the separatist triumvirate of Parizeau, Mr. Bouchard, and Mario Dumont of the Action Democratic Party of Quebec.

''Quebec has to fight against resignation,'' shouted Bouchard, the province's most popular politician. ''It's not true that ... Quebec will say 'no' to itself. [Quebeckers] will say 'yes' because the consequences of saying 'no' would be too serious.''

But he spoke to an audience of only about 1,500 people, and it remains to be seen whether the yes leaders can light the needed fire under undecided voters - or even their own supporters.

''We were surprised by the lack of passion over this question of independence,'' says Stephane Ummomond, a visitor to Quebec City. ''We talked a lot with people - but it was always about cars or baseball.... Nobody said anything at all about Quebec separating from Canada.''

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