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Clinton Gingerly Steers around Quebec Separatism Tempest

By John F. Harris and Charles Trueheart
The Washington Post
OTTAWA

President Clinton, beginning a two-day state visit here Thursday, tiptoed onto the most sensitive ground in Canadian politics - the issue of Quebec separatism - and skipped back off without stepping on a single mine.

For both Clinton and his northern hosts, his speech to Parliament followed a simple formula - no explosions, no problems. For the Canadian government, struggling to stave off a resurgent separatist movement in Quebec, Clinton's speech offered a vigorous reaffirmation of the U.S. position in favor of Canadian unity.

Lest he offend sensibilities in Quebec, however, Clinton also repeated the comforting mantra: "Your political future is, of course, entirely for you to decide."

Delivered with gusto, the speech amounted to a restatement of Washington's longstanding approach to the Quebec question, but it was artful enough to win loud applause from both sides. Indeed, Clinton even joked about his penchant for offering a little something to everyone.

"You want to know why my State of the Union address took so long?" he said. "It's because I evenly divided the things that would make the Democrats clap and the Republicans clap."

Later, Clinton met with the leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, Lucien Bouchard, in a historic first encounter between a U.S. president and a Quebec nationalist leader. Bouchard said after the 25-minute meeting that he had tried to explain to Clinton that Quebecers are "moderate people, not radical people, people who feel like a nation and have never been recognized as such by Canada.

"A separate Quebec," he said, would "bring forward no change at all for America - they will have one more friend in the world. We love Americans." He declined to reveal what Clinton said in response.

Prior to his visit, Canadian press commentary had taken note of Clinton's weakened political position at home since the Republicans won control of Congress, but his host, Prime Minister Jean Chretien, was plainly delighted at his presence here.

In his introduction to Clinton's speech Thursday afternoon, Chretien noted that other presidents who had addressed Parliament in recent decades all won reelection - Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan - while those who failed in reelection tries - Ford, Carter and Bush - never spoke here.

"I've never believed in the iron laws of history so much as I do now," Clinton said with a laugh.