PARIS – As RCAF01 taxied down the runway at Le Bourget airport here, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from his cabin to come to the rear of the plane where his political staff, bureaucrats and journalists sit.
He was seeking out Gabrielle Cesvet, one of the speechwriters on his staff, to present her with a signed copy of the speech she wrote that he had given that morning at l’Assemblée nationale.
It was a small moment, done without fanfare or advance warning that took only a few seconds. But it was an acknowledgement of a historic speech, the first one ever given by a Canadian prime minister to the national legislature of the country to which Canada has so many historic and cultural ties.
“For the first time in this place, you are hearing the voice of a Canadian prime minister,” Trudeau started out in his speech.
“A Canadian descendant of a French carpenter from La Rochelle who, in the middle of the 17th century, left his homeland in search of a new life on a continent once said to be new. The story of Étienne Trudeau is that of countless Canadians who are also the descendants of the first French immigrants who helped shape Canada. It is with great emotion that I address you this afternoon in this place marked by your history and the great debates that have marked France.”
The speech was entirely in French and took 33 minutes to deliver. He was interrupted several times with cheers from the French deputies but also heard some jeers launched at him from the handful of far-right and far-left members of the 577-seat legislature.
Trudeau’s speech was crafted to put all its listeners — the conservatives, greenies, socialists, xenophobes, liberals, communists, democrats, nationalists and others who hold seats in the “hemicycle” — at ease off the top.
“If the French language is still alive in North America, four centuries after the birth of a French cradle on the continent, it is because Canada, and especially Quebec, has a deep commitment to keeping it alive,” Trudeau said to many nodding heads.
He reminded the legislators that Canadians have always been quick to defend and die for France’s freedom. The cemeteries at Vimy and Juno Beach are testaments to that.
All legislators — left to centre to right — could applaud that line and they did.
And then there were some reflections on the great debates which are now gripping Europe, and to a degree, North America.
“Confronted with the great challenges of our time, liberal democracies bear the responsibility of articulating a clear and compelling vision of the future they aspire to — the world they hope to build,” Trudeau said to the applause of many French legislators. “This is the mandate entrusted to us by our fellow citizens.”
For those listening, this line was unmistakably a comment on Europe’s illiberal democracies — Hungary under Viktor Orban is the most notable example though Trudeau mentioned no one by name — where populist demagogues work against the multilateralist polity Trudeau was about to enunciate.
“At a time when political currents are exploiting the very real concern of their fellow citizens, Canada has chosen to counter cynicism with boldness and ambition.”
A Canadian audience might roll their eyes but this was a stage which called for some rhetorical flourishes.
“We declare ourselves for progressive trade, for diversity, for immigration, for the protection of the environment …” at this point, Trudeau was already being interrupted by a growing wave of applause but he pressed on, the oratorial instincts of — yes, a former actor and drama teacher — pushing him to the finish. “… for gender equality. For the rule of law. For democracy. For equality. For freedom.”
Most deputies in the National Assembly were on their feet by this point, with loud, long and sustained applause. Yes, the majority of them were saying, this was the Europe most of them and their president, the 40-year-old Emmanuel Macron, were striving to build.
But then, well, details. Always details.
Trudeau went and brought up the free trade deal between Canada and Europe. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or CETA has not yet been ratified by the French legislature though many of its provisions have already been put into effect. CETA was mildly controversial in Canada but is more controversial in Europe.
And those on both the far left and the far right are suspicious that free trade deals can, as Trudeau argued, create prosperity and stability.
CETA, Trudeau offered, was “a progressive approach to our trade.”
And, here, the heckles and harrumphs began.
“We think this trade agreement is not in favour of workers or the environment, in France or in Canada and we oppose it,” Danielle Obono, a deputy from Paris who belongs to the far-left France Insoumise party, told me after Trudeau’s speech. She had been one of those who had booed Trudeau when he talked about CETA. “It’s a shame he had to, or felt compelled to, insist so much on that issue.”
Obono and her party thought it “rude” of Trudeau to be such a pitchman for CETA.
But Trudeau, taking the heckles in stride, had a response for those critics.
“If France cannot ratify a free trade agreement with Canada, which country do you think you will be able to make such a deal?”
That line brought the moderate conservatives and liberals in the assembly to their feet in applause. Anchored by Macron’s group of 350 deputies, these deputies are the clear majority in France’s legislature. The National Assembly has not yet ratified CETA but it seems Canada need not worry about France when it comes to CETA.
Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells once wrote that Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, would “flatten” speeches his speechwriting staff had prepared for him. Harper would take out memorable lines or flashy phrases preferring, Wells suggested, speeches which contained no phrase which might one day be held against him.
Not so with Trudeau and his speechwriter, Cesvet, on this grand occasion. They finished with a grand French flourish, worthy of anything Aaron Sorkin wrote for the television series The West Wing.
“Canada has decided to be for progress,” Trudeau said speaking French (which I hope I’ve translated here with similar effect). “We see our partner, our ally, our friend forever, France, as being for progress too.
“You carry the legacy of the enlightenment whose ideas have made your country a symbol of hope for the world, from one generation to the next. To ignorance, you answered with reason. To darkness, you answered with science, debate and progress. Together, let us revive these humanist values.”