OTTAWA - Nicolas Sarkozy's ardent condemnation of Quebec separatism has touched off a trans-Atlantic tizzy that has led sovereigntists to dismiss the French president as ignorant.

In an improvised monologue this week Sarkozy stressed the need for unity in the face of hateful, narrow-minded, sectarianism.

He never mentioned Quebec by name - but he made the remarks during a Paris ceremony where he presented Premier Jean Charest with the French legion of honour.

Sovereigntists, who have assiduously courted the French government in a decades-long diplomatic effort, are expressing increasing frustration with president's periodic musings in favour of Canadian unity.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe said Sarkozy proved he knows nothing about Quebec.

"If they're talking about us, about sovereigntists, he's making an eloquent demonstration of his crass ignorance of Quebec's political situation," Duceppe said.

"We can be a sovereign country and that doesn't mean we hate Canada. On the contrary - it's a great country. I like the Canadian nation. And Canadians have friendships with Americans. They don't hate them because they're a sovereign country.

"The French are sovereign. Do they hate their neighbours? It's twisted logic, and it doesn't hold up."

Duceppe was asked why Sarkozy couldn't express support for Canadian unity, when past French presidents like Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac have been applauded for endorsing Quebec independence.

He denied suggesting Sarkozy had no right to express an opinion, but added that Quebec's status would be decided by Quebecers.

Sovereigntists generally bristle at any suggestion that their movement feeds off bitterness - a charge considered so offensive in the province that even pro-Canadian politicians stopped making it long ago.

Most federalist politicians have avoided referencing Sarkozy's remarks - with one notable exception.

The Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, delighted in rubbing the Bloc's noses in it.

When Duceppe argued in the House of Commons that the budget did little for Quebec, the prime minister, without any prompting, opened his response with a reference to the Sarkozy comments.

"That's the sectarianism Mr. Sarkozy is talking about," Harper replied, before rattling off a list of budget items he said would help all Canadians, including Quebecers.

Other Conservatives, including Quebec City MPs Sylvie Boucher and Josee Verner, expressed agreement with Sarkozy.

The Liberal reaction was more cautious, as was the response from the province's premier, Jean Charest.

The Liberal foreign affairs critic, Bob Rae, said the Quebec-Canada issue would be decided here - not in France.

Charest said he did not want to inflame diplomatic tensions at a sensitive moment.

He alluded to proposed freer trade between Canada and Europe and a manpower mobility agreement between France and Quebec, two main objectives of his trip to Europe.

"Starting a controversy with the French president, in my view, is useless, all the more because we have more important issues with France," Charest told reporters on Tuesday.

Charest said he was not going to "re-interpret" Sarkozy's remarks when pressed about them by journalists on Tuesday.

He said the French leader is "perfectly free to speak on these issues and Quebecers will decide on their own future."

Charest said he is proud to live in Quebec, where he said the conduct of the national unity debate has been "exemplary."

"We've been through these debates for the last 30, 40 years - very intense debates on the future of our society, on the future of the country and yet we've done it peacefully, we've done it democratically.

"We've been through all the ups and downs. We're very used to the idea that some people may express some opinions from outside of Quebec but, in the end, we decide, no one else."

Charest said he has a great deal of respect for those who defend sovereigntist ideas but he also expects they will show the same respect for people who hold an opposing view.

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