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QUEBEC CITY (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy took a big step back on Friday from the almost tacit support for Quebec separatism shown by some of his predecessors.
"Frankly, if there is someone who tells me the world needs more division, we don't read the world in the same way," he told a Quebec reporter who asked if the French-speaking Quebec had lost its special relationship with France.
Sarkozy, who met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and addressed Quebec's provincial legislature, lauded Quebec as family and Canada as a loyal friend and ally.
"I don't see why in the world a demonstration of familial and fraternal love for Quebec has to arise from a distrust of Canada," he said.
In 1967 Charles de Gaulle, French president at the time, angered the Canadian government but delighted separatists by shouting "Vive le Quebec! Vive le Quebec libre!" -- Long live Quebec! Long live a free Quebec! -- from Montreal City Hall's balcony.
In subsequent years, French leaders used the formula of "non-interference, non-indifference" regarding Quebec's future, one which said France would not actively promote Quebec independence but which hinted it would welcome it.
Separatists lost two referendums on Quebec independence, one in 1980 by a large margin and one in 1995 by only one percentage point. In recent years, support for separation in the province has only been about 40 percent.
Sarkozy abandoned the "non-interference, non-indifference" formula during his visit, not using the language at all and saying France was a country that unites and pacifies.
"I know that in Quebec there are francophones who are part of our family. I know that. But the francophones of my family don't ask me to consider Canada...not to be friends," he said.
Reporting by Randall Palmer, editing by Anthony Boadle