Visitors to the stylish and sophisticated city of Montreal are faced with an imposing political paradox. To read the newspapers and watch television newscasts, one would think that the French-speaking province of Quebec was once again on the point of breaking off from Canada and its domineering British heritage. But without exception, every Francophone Montrealer I quizzed last week on the wisdom of Quebec sovereignty - from taxi drivers to hotel desk clerks - considered it to be a concept as desirable as putting ketchup on a fillet mignon. And their rejection of the idea - rendered with a colourful, almost Parisian-style disgust - was matched only by their contempt for the 'sovereignist' politicians who refuse to let the matter drop. If the residents of the world's second-biggest French-speaking city do not want to ditch the Queen from their postage stamps, one has a right to ask oneself who in the world would. Yet the issue of Quebec and the future of the Canadian federation has once again leapt to the fore in the current general election campaign, despite almost every participant's desire to keep it under control. It took the entire nation, and not just Quebec, a good while to get over the trauma of the 1995 referendum, in which the province's citizens rejected the sovereignty question by a tantalisingly narrow majority of only 50.6 per cent. And while the province's premier Lucien Bouchard, a charismatic separatist, has vowed to hold another referendum as soon as he is constitutionally able - possibly next year - the nation's Prime Minister Jean Chretien did not call the snap election with the Quebec issue near the top of the agenda. Indeed, the issues which are closest to the hearts of Quebecois - unemployment, health care, education, the future of the economy - mirror the concerns of the rest of the nation. Quebec has a solid 25 per cent of Canada's people but with a poorer economy and worse social problems than anywhere else. It is these concerns which play into the hands of the separatists, who largely live in Quebec City or in rural areas. Although the country's social and economic issues are difficult to untangle from the Anglo-French debate, the Quebec issue has come to dominate the latest campaign beyond anyone's expectations. The catalyst has been a startling revelation that Jacques Parizeau, Mr Bouchard's predecessor as Quebec premier, secretly intended to declare independence from Ottawa if the 1995 referendum had returned a 'yes' vote. The news, culled from Mr Parizeau's own words in his new memoirs, has dominated coverage of the election, as it did during the debates between party leaders earlier this week. Mr Parizeau's confession - which he is now trying to distance himself from - has struck at the heart of his supporters as well as his foes, because he and Mr Bouchard made clear declarations during the referendum campaign that in the event of a 'yes' vote, they would negotiate with the Ottawa government for a working relationship short of outright independence. Not only does Mr Parizeau's book suggest he carefully chose his words to disguise his secessionist intent, but that he even talked secretly with French politicians to gauge Paris' likely reaction to an independent Quebec. There is every sign that France could not really care what happens in its long-lost Canadian colony, but to Canadians of both languages, the revelations have turned the campaign upside down. Although the two most prominent Quebec politicians - Mr Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe, the Quebecois' leader in the Ottawa parliament - have criticised Mr Parizeau and said they knew nothing of his secret plans, the damage to the sovereignists has been immense. Hardline separatists are estimated to make up around 40 per cent of the province's population, leaving another 40 per cent (largely English-speaking) as anti-separatists and the remainder as waverers. It was these floaters, who largely live in Montreal, who failed to deliver the majority for sovereignty in the 1995 poll, and who are now deserting the Quebec parties in droves. Such is the fallout from the Parizeau 'scandale' that Mr Chretien, the most despised Quebecer inside the province, is seeing his ruling Liberal Party beginning to overtake Mr Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois within the province itself. Virtually excommunicated by Francophones for having sold out the sovereignty issue years ago, Mr Chretien can hardly have expected to be doing so well in his home province. As it is, the vote there is making his poll lead in the rest of the nation even more unassailable. It is expected that Mr Chretien will be returned on June 2 by another landslide. But that will not absolve him from the responsibility of preserving a united Canada with more force than in the past. If 1995 taught his government a lesson, it is that it cannot take its eye off the ball when it comes to Quebec.