On the eve of its sovereignty referendum, Quebec is a mean and anxious place. For the past five weeks, virtually all conversations -- on street corners and in offices, in factories, meeting halls and living rooms -- have focused on one question: Should this predominantly French-speaking province take a decisive step toward independence from Canada?

"Thousands of "yes" and "no" committees have been organized in businesses, neighborhoods, civic organizations and even a prison. But coming down to the wire both sides abandoned earlier civility for vitriolic charges and innuendo.

Two nights ago a leaflet stuck on the windshield of a car depicted Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, leader of the separatist forces, as a fascist and communist, surrounded by a swastika and hammer-and-sickle. The caption read: "Quebec is in danger."

Levesque's opponent, opposition leader Claude Ryan, has repeatedly implied that an independent Quebec would become a totalitarian state. His billboards suggest that a yes vote would somehow abolish freedom.

All key members of the federal government in Ottawa, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, himself a native and resident of Quebec, have campaigned for the no forces. While Trudeau took the high road, his ministers resorted to outright threats.

Finance Minister Jean Chretien called Levesque's supporters a "gangrene that has to be cut out." Postmaster General Andre Ouellet said that in other countries they would be "thrown into prison and even shot."

Other Trudeau aides made assaults on Quebecers' pocketbooks.

Social Affairs Minister Monique Begin said a yes vote would end welfare and social security checks for the elderly; Energy Minister Marc Lalonde drew a depressing picture for the province's 4.3 million eligible voters, saying a yes vote would cost each family more than $1,200 a year in higher oil bills.

Levesque and his aides in turn have charged that commercial and industrial interests, the English-language news media and unnamed forces in Toronto have formed an unholy alliance to frustate the will of French-speaking Quebec residents, who comprise 80 percent of the province's 6.3 million people.

Stressing this conspiracy view, the separatists have called for French solidarity, implying that Trudeau, Ryan and others have betrayed Quebec interests and are working for English Canada's interests.

As a result Quebec is more sharply divided along communal lines than it has ever been in this century. Polls show the 20 percent English-speaking community is a solid "no" bloc. Levesque's minimum objective is to win a majority of French Canadians and claim a moral victory even if suffering an overall defeat.

There is growing unease here about what may be in store for Quebec after Tuesday. Young separatist militants, sensing some slippage in their fortunes, now privately say, "If we lose, the English had better not celebrate too loudly."

The question whether to give Levesque the mandate to negotiate sovereignty for Quebec and economic association with the rest of Canada has split families and ruptured friendships.

For some, changes over the past decade have left precious few reasons for quitting Canada while others remain convinced that sovereignty is the sole way to safeguard their interests.

Levesque's supporters are overwhelmingly young, better educated and ready to discuss their views. Federalist forces are predominantly people over 40, who have a vested interest in the status quo and who are reluctant to publicly discuss their views.

In many ways typical is the family of Arthur Stafford, 72, a retired railway worker who despite his Irish ancestry is a French-speaking Quebecer. rThe last time the Staffords had a family dinner with their eight children was last Christmas and it ended in disagreements over politics.

Stafford's two oldest sons announced they would vote no. One of them is a successful building contractor who owns a $2 million-a-year business. tThe other works as a postal inspector for the federal government.

The other six children, all college graduates, are Levesque supporters. The youngest, Robert, 28, a graduate student at the University of Quebec, speaks little English. "Canada doesn't mean a thing to me," he said. "I want to see this problem resolved once and for all. I don't want to spend the rest of my life worrying about Quebec crises, and we'll have a crisis here as long as this is not resolved."

His father will vote yes, not because he wants a separate Quebec but rather to get a better deal for the province from Canada. "I figure if we get a yes, that yes is going to travel through the dominion. I want to see a change in Quebec. I am a Quebecer and I'm a Canadian," the elder Stafford said.

Comedian Yvonne Deschantse summed up this ambivalence so typical of many Quebecers by saying that what they really want is "an independent Quebec within a united Canada."

What does Quebec want? Deputy Premier Jacques Ivon Morin, an Oxford-educated economist and one of the key figures in Levesque's Parti Quebecois, talked about Quebec's "manifest destiny" in seeking to preserve its unique identity.

Quebec wants to be sovereign yet remain in an association with Canada, he said.

"We need each other's help to maintain on the north of this continent something distinct from our powerful neighbor -- a society based on diversity, rather than a melting pot," he said in an interview.