French PM announces visit to 'Canada and Quebec'
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced Monday he will travel this month to "Canada and Quebec", singling out the French-speaking province whose status within Canada has been a source of friction between the two countries.
Ayrault "will go to Canada and Quebec from March 13 to March 16," starting in Ottawa before travelling to Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, his office said in a statement.
It said he was going at the invitation of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and would "take this opportunity to give a new impetus to the historically friendly relations between Canada and France."
As well as Harper, Ayrault will meet Quebec Premier Pauline Marois for talks aimed at setting "the main directions of cooperation" and "cementing the friendship between France and Quebec."
His visit comes after President Francois Hollande in October returned France to its historic policy of "non-interference, non-indifference" on the question of Quebec independence.
First laid out in 1977, the "ni, ni" policy -- as it is known in French -- makes France officially neutral on the question of Quebec independence but indicates support to Quebeckers should they choose to separate from the rest of Canada.
The formula has allowed France to continue what many see as its subtle support for Quebec independence -- embodied in ex-president Charles de Gaulle's 1967 "Long Live a Free Quebec!" speech in Montreal -- without sparking a diplomatic row with Ottawa.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, defeated by Hollande for the presidency last May, angered Quebec separatists with repeated attacks on the independence movement, dismissing what he called "sectarianism" and "self-confinement".
Hollande announced the policy shift during a visit to Paris by Marois, whose separatist Parti Quebecois returned to power in August.
Ayrault will also hold talks in Canada on efforts to agree a free trade pact between the country and the European Union.
In Toronto he will meet Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
© 2013 AFP