Friday, May 11, 2007

Bart's Books: French Kiss

French Kiss: Stephen Harper's Blind Date With Quebec
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.


Other Reviews
Bound by Gravity
Olaf
A BCer in Toronto
Political Staples interview

A copy of French Kiss was provided free from Random House, for review

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15 Comments:

  • Hmm, I was all set to read French Kiss, but thumbing through I had the impression of the exact same drawbacks, despite feeling it had the very same compelling and intriguing ideas.

    By Blogger Jason Bo Green, at 4:29 PM  

  • "Not surprisingly, I strongly disagree with Hebert’s opinion that the only way to power in Canada is through “open federalism” and decentralization."

    But enough about you. What do Quebeckers want? It isn't to be ruled over by Trudeau Liberals from English Canada-in case the Liberals haven't noticed their federal election results in Quebec since the '84 election.

    By Blogger nuna d. above, at 6:02 PM  

  • nuna; Well, Chretien won the popular vote in Quebec in 2000 under a fairly hard line approach to the province.

    If you already have the Tories and Bloc preaching assymetrical/softfederalism/nationhood/buzzwordoftheday, I don't think the Liberals going that way is neccesarily a recipe for success.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 6:07 PM  

  • Québec has voted for hard-liners before - Trudeau almost swept the province in the late 70's.

    There are hard-line federalists in Québec, that's very clear. It's also very clear, however, that they are in an overwhelming minority. Other than a few seats in Montréal and Outaouais, there's not much room for the Liberals to grow in Québec with the hard line approach. The last two general elections in Québec have displayed that pretty well: the federal Liberals almost disappeared from outside Montréal, and the provincial Liberals got slaughtered by the "autonomist" ADQ. Even within the Liberal Party, decentralization seems to be a rather popular idea, with Iggy getting huge numbers here during the last leadership race, supported by the nationalist wing of the party, with people like Coderre and Rodriguez.

    Whether one is a hard liner or not, I think that sticking to a hard line approach will keep the Liberals from gaining anything outside Montréal, and that'd be a pity.

    I agree with Hébert that flexible federalism is the best way to gain power in today's Canada, especially in Québec. Québecers have shown clearly, in their last provincial election, that they are ready to ditch hard-liners, whether they be sovereignists (the PQ's program was radical on the national issue) or federalists (I mean, Jean Charest... how much more federalist can one be?) in favour of decentralizers. A Brian Mulroney or a Robert Bourassa is what Québec is asking for, not a Pierre Trudeau or a Jacques Parizeau.

    That said, CG, you're totally allowed to be a hard liner, that doesn't diminish you in any way - I just don,t tend to think that it's the best way to gain seats in Québec, in fact I think it's pretty self-harming.

    By Blogger jeagag, at 6:25 PM  

  • "she jumps around from topic to topic"

    You are the second guy to say that (Greg of Political Staples was the first that I recall). It didn't seem jumpy to me at all.

    Is that a male/female thing or dear God, do people describe ME as having a Paul Martin style? Ewwww.

    (Warning: the previous question probably falls into the "does this make me look fat" category)

    By Blogger Candace, at 11:43 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger JimTan, at 1:35 AM  

  • Jaegag said

    “That said, CG, you're totally allowed to be a hard liner, that doesn't diminish you in any way - I just don,t tend to think that it's the best way to gain seats in Québec, in fact I think it's pretty self-harming.”

    Jaegag makes good points, and stated diplomatically.

    In the first place, decentralization has been going on for many years. The Chretien governments have done their part. The problem lies in harper’s lack of strategic vision on the decentralization issue. Yes, his decentralization theme is dangerous because his motive is Alberta-centric and selfish.

    That said, the issue for federalists today is about integration. It isn’t necessary to take a hard-line if we can find common ground with Quebec.

    For example, Dion’s global warming priority will resonate with Quebec conservatives and conservationists. It is about long term intergenerational policies. And, it involves close co-operation between all levels of government.

    What about harper? His theme on family values has not passed the credibility gap. His neo-con tendency is repulsive to Francophones because it is an Anglo-American POV. Harper isn’t going to get his majority. But, he has to be stopped.

    By Blogger JimTan, at 1:37 AM  

  • Yes, his decentralization theme is dangerous because his motive is Alberta-centric and selfish.

    Whereas if it were Quebec-centric, that would be more acceptable and not "selfish"?

    By Blogger The Invisible Hand, at 2:22 AM  

  • invisible said

    "Whereas if it were Quebec-centric, that would be more acceptable and not "selfish"?"

    You're absolutely right. Harper has behaved badly because he needs the votes from Quebec. He gave money to Quebec while breaking written promise to NFL and Saskatchewan. I’m glad that you agree with me on this.

    By Blogger JimTan, at 2:50 AM  

  • candace said

    "Is that a male/female thing or dear God, do people describe ME as having a Paul Martin style? Ewwww."

    My dear! I have no idea. I have never been a female and cannot offer an opinion on the male/female thing.

    I assure you that you are fine. God Bless You!

    By Blogger JimTan, at 3:03 AM  

  • Here's another review, from Pample the Moose. He's much more of an Hebert fan than you, but comes to very similar conclusions.

    By Blogger Idealistic Pragmatist, at 9:26 AM  

  • jimtan said:

    "What about harper? His theme on family values has not passed the credibility gap. His neo-con tendency is repulsive to Francophones because it is an Anglo-American POV. Harper isn’t going to get his majority. But, he has to be stopped."


    I'm not sure I totally agree with you. The blue Québecers have waken up in the past few years, and family values are most definitely a popular political point in rural Québec - families and the middle class were the primary clientele Dumont wanted to reach, and did reach. However, I agree with you about Harper's credibility, at least in Québec. If you take Afghanistan, the wannabe-green plan and some other issues, Harper has no credibility, he's certainly very far from the average Québecer. It was either Vincent Marissal or Michel C. Auger who wrote in La Presse that the big difference between Harper and Dumont is that Québecers trust Dumont, that they see him as the good guy next door, they call him by his first name most of the time. They certainly don,t feel that about Harper, who despite trying very very hard (his French has improved drastically over the past 5 years), is just not in touch with the average Québecer. And yes, he has to be stopped :).

    I haven't read Hébert's book, but I've been meaning to for... well since it came out, I suppose about 2 months now. I've never gotten around to it, and it's interesting to read the review. I'm not normally one that reads journalist-written books, but Hébert is probably my favourite political analyst, and the choice of topic is a rather interesting one.

    By Blogger jeagag, at 12:25 PM  

  • Yes, his decentralization theme is dangerous because his motive is Alberta-centric and selfish.

    I'm still confused as to how decentralizing to help Quebec is good but decentralizing to help Alberta is bad?

    And, truth be told, Harper's decentralizing tendencies sure seem to be more Quebec-centric than Alberta-centric from what I've seen so far.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 12:56 PM  

  • CG said

    “I'm still confused as to how decentralizing to help Quebec is good but decentralizing to help Alberta is bad?”

    Wait a minute! I never said that.

    I said that decentralization was already underway (well before the 1995 referendum). Note that some decentralization may be Quebec motivated, but it is not Quebec-centric. That’s because decentralization applies equally (more or less) to all provinces.

    Today, the task is integration, i.e. finding common ground to stay together. For example, global warming requires Trans-Canada and multi-level government co-operation. Separation would recede into the background, and the hard-line confrontation can be avoided.

    “And, truth be told, Harper's decentralizing tendencies sure seem to be more Quebec-centric than Alberta-centric from what I've seen so far.”

    You have to be clear about cause and effect. Quebec is a tactical issue for harper. His true loyalty lies with right-wing Alberta.

    Harper has given some money to Quebec to win votes. However, harper reveals his true colors with his green plan by exempting the oil patch while penalizing Quebec/Ontario industries.

    That’s the problem with any decentralization program from harper. The needs of right-wing Alberta, not the needs of all provinces or Quebec will drive decentralization. For example, a major target will be the Charter of Rights.

    From wikipedia

    “The Charter guarantees certain political and civil rights of people in Canada from the policies and actions of all levels of government. It is designed to unify Canadians around a set of principles that embody those rights.”

    Think about it.

    By Blogger JimTan, at 9:42 PM  

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