ST-JOSEPH-DE-BEAUCE, Que. -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper is challenging Quebec sovereigntists' right to claim the Fete nationale holiday as their own political event.

The subtle jab came at the end of a visit to Quebec where a prime minister best known for lambasting Liberals showed himself perfectly willing to spar with separatists, too.

"This Fete nationale was being celebrated long before the Quiet Revolution (in the 1960s) -- and even before Confederation," he told a rural crowd yesterday.

Harper eschewed the much larger -- and more staunchly nationalist -- ceremonies in Montreal and Quebec in favour of a rural festival in the province's Beauce region.

Instead of wading through urban throngs of thousands of flag-waving, slogan-chanting revellers, Harper chatted up locals among the cow pastures and rolling hills of Quebec's federalist heartland.

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