Ottawa helped France block René Lévesque from going to Algeria for 1958 referendum

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Reporter possible communist - diplomat - Ottawa helped France block René Lévesque from going to Algeria for 1958 referendum. RANDY BOSWELL The Montréal Gazete Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Canadian diplomats secretly helped the French government prevent a troublesome TV reporter named René Lévesque from covering a key 1958 vote on Algerian independence from inside rebel-held territory.

According to documents newly declassified by the Department of Foreign Affairs, the young broadcaster and future Quebec premier prompted a series of confidential telegrams between Paris and Ottawa, and was labelled "one-sided" as a journalist and a possible "member of the Communist Party" by Canada's ambassador to France.

Lévesque, a prominent Radio-Canada radio and television foreign correspondent before turning to politics in the 1960s, was apparently planning a daring trip to war-torn Algeria to cover the results of the Sept. 28, 1958, referendum that established General Charles de Gaulle as president of the Fifth Republic.

The vote was also seen as a key test of a proposed new international "French community" that was to include France's former colonies. And the referendum results in Algeria - which had been gripped by violence between French loyalists and African separatist rebels - were hotly anticipated around the world.

Lévesque, then host of the popular current affairs program Point de Mire (On Target), regularly travelled to national and international hotspots to cover the news. But when the French Foreign Ministry learned Lévesque - seen to be sympathetic to the rebels - was planning to broadcast from inside Algeria and perhaps even from behind rebel lines, France pressured Canada to have him stopped.

Canadian officials refused to directly meddle in the editorial affairs of the public broadcaster. But walking a tightrope between interfering with the arm's-length Radio-Canada and offending the French, diplomats in Ottawa and Paris decided it would be best to "go through the motions" of assisting Lévesque in his travels while effectively thwarting the plans for coverage from Algeria.

In a Sept. 18 dispatch to Ottawa, Pierre Dupuy, Canada's ambassador to France, describes a meeting that day with senior French civil servant Henri Langlais to discuss Lévesque's travel plans. He had told Dupuy that "it would be extremely difficult for the French to give him permission to visit Algeria. ... The result would be that Canadian radio and television networks would have essentially a (rebel) view of the referendum, which would not, repeat, not be at all satisfactory to the French."

Dupuy advised the French that if they barred Lévesque from travelling to rebel-held areas, "such treatment would lead to diatribes about lack of freedom of the press and the guided nature of the referendum." But the ambassador's telegram makes clear his own misgivings.

"It seems to us that Lévesque's strong and well-known bias against French policy in Algeria and his expressed sympathy for the (nationalists) make him a poor choice to cover the referendum in France and in Algeria," Dupuy stated. "There is also the consideration that, if our memory is correct, Lévesque, if not an actual member of the Communist Party, is at least a sympathizer."

Dupuy said he told Langlais that government intervention with the CBC is a "very difficult and delicate matter" and that "there can be no, repeat, no question of our trying to censor the coverage which Lévesque might eventually prepare."

But he also said it would be equally difficult for "the embassy representing the Canadian government to be asked to assist him in France, where he is persona non grata. Our own feeling is that, if this is still possible, someone other than Lévesque should be asked to cover the referendum in France and Algeria on behalf of CBC."

He adds that it is "not, repeat, not really our business," but "we fear, from what we know of Lévesque's views, the CBC coverage of the referendum both in France and Algeria may be distinctly one-sided."

Dupuy closes with the hope that his officials will be able to "merely go through the motions of assisting him" reach Algeria without actually helping.

A reply the next day from an unidentified Canadian diplomat in Ottawa offers this hope for a solution to the problem: "We would consider it entirely appropriate should the French ambassador decide to take private steps at which he had hinted to dissuade the CBC from going ahead with this project. Lacoste has now told us that he has taken up the matter with a high official of the CBC and is encouraged by his understanding of the French position."

The reply also notes France was reassured "no special facilities would be afforded to Lévesque in carrying out his advertised project."

A final telegram from the Canadian embassy in Paris on Sept. 22 indicates that "we have advised Langlais that it is impossible for us to intervene unofficially with the CBC on this matter, but that we shall not, repeat, not attempt to assist Lévesque in obtaining either permission to visit Algeria or interviews with political figures."

Lévesque never made it to Algeria to cover the vote, which gave de Gaulle a resounding victory in both France and Algeria. But rebel forces quickly declared themselves a government-in-exile, stoking violence and eventually resulting in the negotiated independence of Algeria in 1962.

Lévesque might never have known about the behind-the-scenes machinations that foiled his planned trip to Algeria. In his memoirs, published a year before his death in 1987, he recalled covering the 1958 referendum from France: "We had to take the Montreal-Paris flight on Monday, jam meetings, interviews and the filming of atmospheric footage into two days, then come back to Montreal" only to "race against the clock" to edit film and prepare for the next night's live broadcast.

The telegrams detailing the Lévesque affair were released as part of an ongoing federal project to publish historical Foreign Affairs documents.

Michael Stevenson, the McMaster University historian in Hamilton who co-ordinated the latest volume of papers, said the September 1958 exchanges "caught my attention because it is René Lévesque, who does go on to become the first PQ premier of Quebec. This is just another piece of the puzzle about his early career and his relation to the federal government."

Stevenson says diplomats were clearly "walking a fine line" between their obligation not to interfere with the CBC and their desire to maintain friendly relations with the French.

"I think it's important to remember that the Canadian government was in a bit of a bind here," he says. "It really had no authority to restrict an employee of the CBC from doing whatever he wanted or she wanted. The French government clearly thought that Ottawa could exert a fair amount of pressure to prevent the trip from happening at all. I think Foreign Affairs took the only line that it could - that it could not interfere with the affairs of the CBC. At the same time, it was not going to go out of its way" to help Lévesque.