Quebec Premier Breaks Ranks, Rallies to Jewish Community’s Defense

Anti-Semitic comments by a hardline Quebec nationalist are roiling the provincial parliament, with the local premier abandoning partisan loyalty to come strongly to the Jewish community’s defense.

The uproar began several weeks ago with a radio interview given by Yves Michaud, a Quebec nationalist who hopes to stand as the ruling Parti Quebecois’ candidate in a Montreal-area district in upcoming elections.

Speaking on a local French-language station, Michaud said Jews focus on their own suffering while ignoring the plight of others, called B’nai Brith Canada the enemy of Quebec nationalists and a phalanx of the Israeli government, and condemned the heavily Jewish suburb of Cote Saint-Luc for voting against separation in the 1995 referendum.

The separatists lost the 1995 referendum by a very slim margin, prompting then- Premier Jacques Parizeau of the Parti Quebecois to blame the loss on “money and the ethnic vote” just before resigning. Parizeau, who is no longer in government, has emerged as one of Michaud’s staunchest defenders in the current scandal.

Last week, the Parti Quebecois joined with the Liberals to pass a motion censuring Michaud in the province’s National Assembly.

Premier Lucien Bouchard strongly condemned Michaud’s comments, calling them “an attack on a people who don’t deserve to be treated like that.

“Quebecers are all equal. They have the right to vote for whom they want,” he said, adding that the Jews undoubtedly have suffered greatly during their history.

On Wednesday, he broadened his criticism.

“We are not in a political party to just buy membership cards or have national councils,” he said. “We are there to defend values, to propose things to society.”

Michaud, who once likened the English language to a “cancer” in Quebec society, has refused to apologize. In fact, he demanded yesterday that Bouchard apologize for humiliating him in recent days.

“I was stupefied when I heard you accuse me last night, in a harsh, angry and vindictive tone, of being impervious to the greatest crime in the history of humanity,” the Holocaust, Michaud wrote in a letter published in Quebec’s major newspapers today.

The result has been turmoil in the governing Parti Quebecois, with Bouchard insisting that Michaud not be allowed to represent the party in this spring’s election unless he recants.

Divisions in the party deepen daily. Some analysts believe Bouchard ultimately will be forced out of office over the issue, or will resign, if he fails to swing a majority in the party to his view. Others believe that Bouchard indeed wants out, and sees the Michaud Affair as the perfect cover.

Meanwhile, members of the Jewish community are pleased with Bouchard’s supportive stance. Robert Libman, Quebec regional director of B’nai Brith Canada and mayor of the municipality of Cote Saint-Luc, applauded the premier’s comments in a conversation with JTA.

“Yes, I am surprised by events,” Libman admitted. “I never expected either the National Assembly motion” censuring Michaud, “or Mr. Bouchard standing tall like this. But it isn’t a surprise, actually, as he has always shown a strong commitment to the Jewish community and he has been unbelievably strong now as well.”

Libman pointed to Bouchard’s commitment to Israel during the Gulf War.

“He was then the leader of a federal party, the Bloc Quebecois” – which he founded to further the goal of Quebec’s separation – “and he stood in the House of Commons and made the most passionate speech in support of Israel, likely the most moving of any speaker,” Libman said. “He was very powerful that night.”

Libman admitted that his B’nai Brith office has received an unusual amount of anti-Semitic phone calls and e-mails since the Michaud Affair broke.

“We are getting about 50-60 e-mails per day that are anti-Semitic in nature, but we suspect they are from the same dozen people,” he said. “They are quite sophisticated in nature.”

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