Premier Jean Charest has been in Europe since last Thursday. After hanging out with the big-leaguers at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he went to Paris yesterday to be made a commandeur, the highest rank in the French Ordre de la Légion d'honneur, by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Otherwise, at the opening ceremony of the annual Quebec City winter carnival on Friday evening, I might have expected the carnival's snowman mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval, to yank off his costume head to reveal the grinning face of the premier underneath.
(In the premier's absence, however, the outdoor ceremony was noteworthy because Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was there, was loudly booed by the crowd in what is supposed to be a Conservative bastion.)
In the past year, Charest has rarely missed an opportunity to flatter the touchy and fickle voters of the strategically important Quebec City region with his attentions.
For example, while Parti Québécois members of the National Assembly complained about a concert by Sir Paul McCartney on the city's Plains of Abraham last summer, Charest made sure to be seen enjoying the show along with more than 200,000 others.
The investment paid off in the Dec. 8 election, when Charest's Liberals gained five seats in the Quebec City region, for a total of seven out of 11.
And he made up for his absence from the carnival opening by accepting the honourary chairmanship of the international peewee hockey tournament held during the carnival. Maybe for that occasion he can get out the mothballed costume of Badaboum, the furry blue mascot of the NHL Quebec Nordiques.
But there's an invitation to another major event later this year in the provincial capital that Charest has already turned down even before he received it. And that's even though the event is described by its host, the National Battlefields Commission, as "the premiere summer event in Quebec City."
Charest has said he will not attend the re-enactment of the battle on the Plains of Abraham 250 years ago to be staged on the weekend of July 30-Aug. 2.
Anyway, by then, there might be nothing to attend. Quebec opinion is divided over the re-enactment; federalist La Presse has defended it for its educational value, while nationalist Le Devoir yesterday called for the cancellation of the "useless war games."
Nationalists have criticized what they consider a celebration of the conquest of their ancestors for the entertainment of tourists, and radical sovereignists have threatened to disrupt the event.
In response, the battlefields commission, the federal government agency that administers the park on the Plains where the re-enactment is to be held, promised on the weekend to re-consider its plans and ensure that the commemorations would not be festive.
That wasn't enough to satisfy hard-line sovereignists, and it might not be enough to satisfy the mainline sovereignist parties, either. Both the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois have said governments should have nothing to do with the re-enactment - in effect saying it should be moved off the actual battlefield or cancelled outright.
On the other hand, Quebec City politicians have defended the re-enactment, which the commission expects to draw more than 100,000 visitors, in addition to the 2,000 participating "re-enactors."
Mayor Régis Labeaume has dismissed the complaints as "drivel," Action démocratique MNA Éric Caire has called the critics "colonized" and Conservative minister Josée Verner has said that anybody who isn't happy about the re-enactment should just stay away.
In this new battle of the Plains of Abraham, Charest is caught between the lines. He has more to lose in Quebec City than the PQ, which might be willing to risk alienating voters there early in the term to satisfy its core supporters. But he also needs the support of soft nationalists elsewhere.
So far, he's avoided saying whether he thinks the re-enactment is a good idea. He's just trying to keep his head down until the shooting stops.
Charest ducking latest battle on Plains of Abraham
The premier is reluctant to be caught in political crossfire over re-enactment