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Cablegate: Quebec Premier Charest Visit Scenesetter

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 QUEBEC 000052

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE NOFORN

WHA/CAN PLEASE PASS TO H

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV ECIN BEXP CA
SUBJECT: QUEBEC PREMIER CHAREST VISIT SCENESETTER

1. Summary: Premier Charest is coming to Washington April
17-19 at the halfway mark of his four-year term, facing
political difficulties at home but with his determination and
vision for Quebec intact. When elected in 2003, the Premier
promised to put Quebec on a "new path of development and
prosperity" to include lower taxes, less government spending,
more public-private partnerships and better health care.
Charest is moving forward with this agenda, but it is costing
him in popular support, which now stands at a record low. A
staunch federalist, Charest is committed to a Quebec that leads
in the Canadian Federation. His twenty years of experience in
national politics, including as a leader of the federal
Progressive Conservative party, help Quebec punch above its
weight in Canada. Very much a friend of the U.S., the Premier
in his meetings in Washington will likely stress the GOQ's
commitment to North American trade and security. He is keen to
encourage more business partnerships among Quebec and American
firms (particularly in the high-tech sector), and will also
likely stress Quebec's attractive energy market (both
hydroelectric and wind power). The Premier has been briefed on
the Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America (SPP)
and will be interested in hearing of ways in which Quebec can
contribute to that process. End summary.

2. Premier Charest is one of Canada's leading political
figures. First elected as a Progressive Conservative Member of
Parliament in 1984, he served in several ministerial posts
(including environment) in Conservative governments. After the
Conservative's disastrous defeat in 1993, Charest became interim
leader of that party, and in 1995, he became the first Quebecker
to lead the Conservatives. It was only shortly after the Quebec
independence referendum in 1995 (which failed by a slim margin),
and growing anxiety over Quebec separatist intentions, that
Charest was persuaded to leave federal politics and join the
Liberal party of Quebec (PLQ). In 1998, he became head of the
PLQ. In 2003, tired of nine years of separatist Parti Quebecois
(PQ) rule, Quebeckers voted in the Liberals, with Charest at the
helm.

3. The background is important in understanding Charest, for at
heart he remains a federal politician. Charest thinks in
national, not provincial, terms. (During the 2003 provincial
campaign, he let slip "when I become Prime Minister of Canada.")
Nearly all of his successes as Quebec Premier have been at the
federal or international level. Shortly after taking office,
for example, he successfully launched a new federative
arrangement for Canada, the Council of the Federation, where
Canadian Premiers meet on a regular basis and hash out their
positions on issues that are then discussed with federal
officials. Last fall, he brought home a victory on federal
health fund transfers, winning Ottawa's acceptance of his
principle of "asymmetric federalism" (i.e., the idea that
federal policies need not be applied similarly in each
province). Provincial Liberals we spoke with believe that the
Charest government's position vis-`-vis the federal government
will remain unchanged, even if the federal Liberals lose in the
anticipated federal election. They argue that with a strong
separatist Bloc Quebecois showing, any new federal government -
Liberal or Conservative - will welcome the support of a
non-separatist Quebec government.

4. Charest has been especially effective in expanding Quebec's
field of action internationally. Last fall, he broke new ground
by accompanying French Prime Minister Raffarin to Mexico where
they met with President Fox. Quebeckers believe provinces ought
to engage internationally on issues that under the Canadian
constitution are within provincial jurisdiction (e.g., health,
education). But only Charest has been able to parlay this into
speaking for Canada at a UNESCO meeting on cultural diversity
(to the outrage of some in Canada's other provinces). With a
significant Haitian diaspora in Quebec, he has pushed for the
province to play a role in Haiti, separate but complementary to
that of Canada.

5. Charest's difficulties come into play on the Quebec
homefront. His party was voted into power in 2003 after nine
years of separatist PQ rule, including an emotionally heated,
ultimately unsuccessful 1995 referendum on independence. During
a televised election debate Charest asked voters whether they
wanted a government for whom the guiding priority was improved
healthcare (the PLQ) or sovereignty (the PQ)? Voters backed the
PLQ but today, as the GOQ moves forward on an ambitious agenda
of government reform, many here wonder whether Quebeckers are
really on board. He has tried to dig into a host of public
entitlements, cutting funding for university tuition, raising
daycare fees, attempting public-private partnerships, slowing
pay hikes for civil servants and outsourcing government
services. The GOQ's disapproval rating has soared, and now
stands at a record 76 percent. Others argue that it is not the
changes that are causing Charest's popularity to fall, but the
clumsy way in which new policies and practices have been carried
out. Charest is sticking to his election pledge to put Quebec
on a "new path of development and prosperity" via lower taxes,
more private-public partnerships (PPPs), and by improving the
business climate. As he told Radio-Canada television audiences
April 13, "how can we say we want a modern society and tax the
way we do?" (Quebec taxes are said to be the highest of any
North American province or state.)

Quebec - U.S.
-----------------

6. The GOQ understands the stakes for Quebec and all of North
America as it relates to North American security. Quebec is
working with the States of New York, Maine, Vermont and
Massachusetts on security-related issues. We understand from
DHS contacts that these relationships are working well. In
December 2003, VT Governor Douglas and Charest signed an MOU to
support information sharing. In October 2005, at Quebec's
request, the Quebec Provincial police ("Suriti de Quebec") and
the Vermont State Police will conduct a joint terrorist scenario
in Swanton, VT and Phillipsburg, Quebec, entitled "Double
Impact." The GOQ and the Provincial police also have written
mutual assistance treaties/agreements with New York, Maine,
Vermont and New Hampshire and for assistance in emergency
situations (terror attack, hydroelectric incidents, etc.). At
the same time, especially with Canadian federal RCMP cutbacks to
border patrol, there is concern that some parts of the Quebec-VT
and Quebec-NY borders are poorly patrolled. It would be helpful
for the GOQ to direct the Suriti to better support Canadian
efforts to patrol the border. The GOQ also needs to be more
actively engaged in policing the Indian reserves along the
border.

7. With eighty-six percent of Quebec's exports headed to the
U.S., commerce will be a key theme of Charest's visit to
Washington. For Charest, the future of Quebec lies in more
U.S.-Quebec business partnerships, more U.S. investment in
Quebec, and more sales of Quebec electricity to the U.S.
GOQ-owned Hydro-Quebec is developing more hydroelectric plants
and has begun one of the largest wind energy projects in the
world. We are told that Charest also intends to highlight
Quebec's growing high-tech sector. In his public remarks at the
Wilson Center, Charest will likely emphasize going "beyond
NAFTA," taking North American security and prosperity to the
next level. GOQ officials have briefed the Premier on the
results of the March 23 trilateral summit. Particularly in his
meetings with DHS and DOC, we expect he will be interested in
hearing how Quebec might contribute to the Security and
Prosperity Partnership process. For Quebec, priority areas
include energy (electricity and wind), the environment, and
transportation security (including resolving delays tied to
pre-clearance of agricultural products).

8. Comment: Charest is smart, witty and determined. Despite
popular support for his government taking a hit, he appears far
from embattled. ("You've got to have a thick skin in politics
and I've got a very thick one," he joked to an interviewer
recently.) Hailing from Sherbrooke, only fifty miles north of
the Vermont border, he is fluently bilingual and at home with
America and Americans. He is committed to a Quebec in Canada,
and to making Quebec competitive in North America and beyond.
Most important, he has shown a willingness to work with us on
issues of common concern, including energy, the environment,
facilitating cross-border trade and security.

FRIEDMAN

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