MONTREAL - Claude Morin knew something was coming when French president Charles de Gaulle stepped up to the microphone at Montreal City Hall on July 24, 1967.

He just didn't know what.

Morin, then a young bureaucrat in the provincial government, helped organize de Gaulle's visit to Quebec. He'd been warned not to expect the usual platitudes when de Gaulle spoke.

"I knew because I had asked the question in France, I asked `What will de Gaulle say?''', Morin, 78, said in an interview Monday.

"They told me, `We don't know what he'll say, but one thing is certain: he won't be speaking in generalities. It will be of substance.'''

Morin stood behind the balcony where de Gaulle spoke on that warm evening.

The French president stepped onto the balcony and began his speech by expressing the emotion he felt in speaking to "the French city of Montreal.'' He described in a joking conspiratorial tone the atmosphere that had greeted him on the first 24 hours of his visit.

"I'll confide in you a secret that you will not repeat,'' he said. "Tonight and all along my route, I found myself in an atmosphere of the same kind as the liberation'' of France from Nazi Germany.

The crowd went wild.

The speech lasted under seven minutes, and ended with a series of wishes for long life.

"Vive Montreal,'' de Gaulle began. "Vive le Quebec. Vive le Quebec libre! Vive le Canada francais.''

"Et Vive la France,'' he concluded.

In the courtyard in front of city hall, Morin saw an explosion of joy among the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people assembled out front. Some people cried out and some wept as they echoed de Gaulle's words with chants of Vive le Quebec libre.

It was a stark contrast with atmosphere behind the balcony, where assembled dignitaries raised eyebrows and shuffled their feet in dismay.

"These were people who were from various establishments and they weren't necessarily in favour of what they'd just heard,'' Morin said.

De Gaulle's Vive le Quebec libre triggered an international incident with Canada. Lester B. Pearson, prime minister of the day, tersely pointed out no Canadian or Quebecer needed liberating. The French president's visit was cut short and he was on a plane back to France within a few days.

For years afterward, the event was portrayed as a spontaneous, emotional outpouring by de Gaulle. More recent evidence suggests otherwise.

In a 2000 book, former French cabinet minister Alain Peyrefitte described a de Gaulle who clearly had sympathy for the Quebec independence movement.

"One day or another, Quebec will be independent,'' Peyrefitte quoted de Gaulle as saying in 1963.

De Gaulle knew that year he'd be making a visit to Quebec timed with Expo 67. "Do you see me crossing the Atlantic to go to the fair?'' the president said, according to Peyrefitte.

Peyrefitte said de Gaulle's famous declaration was "the result of a long reflection transformed into unshakable resolution.''

Historian Joe King was a television reporter who followed the 1967 visit with a camera crew. He said the entire visit seemed staged to breathe nationalist life into Quebecers.

De Gaulle began his visit in Quebec City one day earlier, arriving on the steamship Le Colbert to ensure his first steps in Canada would be on Quebec soil.

The next day, de Gaulle was resplendent in his formal military uniform as he travelled to Montreal along Le Chemin du Roi, a winding country road between the two major cities that dates back centuries to French colonial days.

Thousands of people turned out for a day of whistle stops that King says resembled the triumphant march of a conquering emperor. There were even thrones, King said.

"He was pretending that he was liberating these villages,'' King said. "The whole thing was an act, from one end to another. The whole thing was a pretence to stir up trouble.''

King, an ardent anglophone Quebec federalist, blames de Gaulle's visit for the rise of the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) within a few years and the eventual rise to power of the Parti Quebecois.

"He's not my favourite person,'' he said. 

Morin calls King's view a bit of an exaggeration.

"But it was very important as a moment where people in Quebec realized they were forming a nation,'' Morin said. "This was told to them by one of the most important heads of state in the world. This had an impact that was very considerable at the time.''

De Gaulle boosted Quebec nationalism but the ripples from the visit reached around the world.

Quebec's first sovereigntist premier, Rene Levesque, visited China years later where Chinese authorities told him they'd never heard of the province before de Gaulle's visit.

PQ lore says the Chinese even had to invent a new character for "Quebec'' after de Gaulle's speech.

"It was the first time that many people on the planet heard anyone speak about the existence of a place called Quebec,'' Morin said.

"Gen. de Gaulle was a very prestigious head of state, maybe the most prestigious at the time. That he came here and talked about Quebec made it around the world.''

De Gaulle's words also comforted nationalist movements as far away as Scotland and Spain, Morin said.