June 2, 2015 / 1:13 PM / 5 years ago

Former Quebec separatist leader Parizeau dies at 84

(Reuters) - Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, a separatist who nearly succeeded in turning the French-speaking Canadian province into an independent country, has died. He was 84.

Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau talks to supporters as the campaigns with Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, April 25, 2011. REUTERS/Shaun Best

Parizeau’s wife, Lisette Lapointe, announced his death late Monday in a post on Twitter, saying Parizeau had died peacefully and surrounded by love.

Parizeau’s Parti Quebecois won the 1994 provincial election after promising to hold a referendum on separation from Canada within a year.

But on referendum day in October 1995, the separatist message fell just short of convincing a majority of Quebec people, who rejected independence by a 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent vote.

A majority of French speakers, who made up 82 percent of the Quebec population, voted for independence. But an overwhelming majority of English speakers and immigrant groups rejected secession.

A defeated Parizeau lashed out at these latter groups as the failure of the separatists became clear.

“We are beaten, it is true. But by what? Money and the ethnic vote,” he told supporters, in a quote that came to symbolize francophone frustrations and Parizeau’s own bitterness.

That was the second time that Quebec voters had rejected separatism in 15 years, after a failed vote in 1980.

Parizeau, who had trained as an economist, resigned as Quebec’s premier a day after the referendum.

Before he was premier, Parizeau joined other nationalist Quebec intellectuals in starting the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s, that gradually put French speakers in charge of their province’s affairs.

Born into the posh Montreal neighborhood of Outremont, the son of an insurance broker had a doctorate from the London School of Economics.

To succeed in politics, the portly, mustachioed Parizeau worked to change his image as a cranky and pompous aristocrat by shedding his trademark three-piece suits and kicking a two-pack-a-day smoking habit.

While he retired to private life after resigning from politics, Parizeau said in 2013 he was a member of the separatist Parti Quebecois “for life” and argued that sovereignty was still possible for Quebec.

“Do not be afraid of your dreams, do not be afraid of the obstacles in your path, that’s the message that I want to tell you,” he told Quebec nationalists at a 2013 gathering in Montreal.

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins and Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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