BACK off - at least for now. That's the message Quebec's new separatist premier is sending hard-line members of his Parti Quebecois (PQ) who are demanding tougher language laws to promote the use of French.
Lucien Bouchard is moving quickly to defuse what could be another acrimonious battle between the province's majority French speakers and minority English speakers.
''We have to stop being motivated by our old demons in this debate,'' Mr. Bouchard told a recent meeting of the PQ, asking for an end to a showdown between the 82 percent of the province's population who speak French and the rest who speak mainly English. ''It's not true that linguistic rights are a game in which you score points,'' Bouchard said.
Bouchard was reacting to a report on the state of the French language in Quebec. He is trying to steer hard-liners away from a language debate so he can deal with Quebec's economy.
The report, sponsored by Quebec's government, paints a bleak picture of the French language in Quebec, saying it is under threat, especially in Montreal. The report says French is still not the common language in Montreal and criticizes the Quebec government for sloppy enforcement of laws to promote the French language. It also complains that immigrants are not integrating into the French community.
Many French-speaking Quebeckers, and not just separatists, worry about the constant threat to the French language. They see Quebec as a French island in the English sea of North America.
Many small-business people here are glad Bouchard is not taking the same tough stance as those who want to tighten laws that now ban English on signs and in large companies, even English in interoffice memos. A man who attended law school with Bouchard recalls that Bouchard had never exhibited any anti-English feelings when he knew him. Indeed, he is married to an American.