Bart's Books: French Kiss
by Chantal Herbert
I’ll be honest. The only reason I decided to review Chantal Hebert’s latest book was because I’m hoping to get a few google hits for “french kiss”. I’ve always found Hebert’s view of federal politics and federalism frustrating but she certainly knows Quebec politics inside out and is undisputedly Canada’s preeminent Quebec columnist for people living outside of Quebec. With a Quebec election behind us and the possibility of both separatist parties delving into leadership races, now seems like a good time for an in depth look at Quebec politics and some speculation about the future of the politics in that province.
Unfortunately, French Kiss doesn’t really provide either. It’s yet another book on the dynamics of the Martin versus Harper era, with a focus on Quebec. Less than half the book deals with Quebec politics which is unfortunate since Hebert is clearly more in her element when writing about that topic than about, say, Alberta politics, where there is no real deep analysis on her part. There’s also no profound speculation about the future beyond “Harper will fail...or he won’t”, which is probably fair enough since no one really knows how Harper’s courting of Quebec will end. For Hebert, it’s hard to predict how the Harper positives of offering more autonomy for Quebec will be balanced against policy issues like Afghanistan and the environment where he’s completely off base from Quebecers. She does get off a good line at the end of the book though, by cautioning that Harper should “not read too much into a first date kiss”.
Hebert should have taken a page from her subject’s focused priorities approach, because she jumps around from topic to topic in Paul Martin style, leaving the reader dizzy at times. For example, one chapter starts off talking about the benefits of a Liberal-NDP merger, moves into electoral reform, and winds up lamenting the lack of women in politics. Another chapter starts off talking about the legacy of the Charter in Quebec, moves on to BC politics, and ends with an analysis of the equalization formula. As a result, French Kiss reads like the transcript of how you might imagine a talk with Chantal Hebert over beers at a pub might sound, rather than a book tightly focused around a central thesis about Quebec politics.
Much like Chantal often does, I’m probably sounding fairly negative so far, so I will say that Hebert does provide enjoyable reading when she sticks to Quebec. Her opinion that the presence of the Bloc Quebecois has hurt the separatist cause was especially fascinating. In her view, by showing separatists working with Canada and by bringing Quebec issues to the fore, it undermined the argument that Canada doesn’t work. Hebert also believes that the Clarity Act debate turned into a “family affair” with Dion and Duceppe duking it out in Ottawa, whereas without the BQ, it might have been seen as Ottawa imposing its will on Quebec.
Not surprisingly, I strongly disagree with Hebert’s opinion that the only way to power in Canada is through “open federalism” and decentralization. Throughout the book, she is constantly urging the Liberals and NDP to copy the Harper/Mulroney federalism blueprint. In addition to disagreeing with this in principle, I’m not sure it would be a political boon for either party to shift their view in that direction. Her chapter long “Ode to Meech” where Hebert describes the utopian society Canada would be had the ill-fated accord passed had me rolling my eyes a few times.
Still, even though I disagreed with many of her points, throughout the book Hebert defends her arguments well and writes in a very readable style, full of colourful analogies. So while it probably won’t be my favourite political book of 2007, it does have its moments.
Recommendation: Pick it up as a bargain book or borrow it from a friend.
Bound by Gravity
A BCer in Toronto
Political Staples interview
A copy of French Kiss was provided free from Random House, for review