Stung by harsh criticism from former leader Lucien Bouchard, the Parti Québécois became an easy target for Liberal Premier Jean Charest, who capitalized on his political rival's assessment that sovereigntists are fighting a lost cause.
"Ms. Marois' priority is sovereignty, nothing else," Mr. Charest said of PQ Leader Pauline Marois. "The economy isn't her priority. It isn't jobs. It's sovereignty."
Mr. Bouchard said on Tuesday that sovereignty was a dream that would not be achieved any time soon, if ever. Quebeckers, he said, don't want to sever ties with the rest of Canada, and he urged Ms. Marois to focus her attention on solving concrete problems such as the province's debt, the alarming dropout rate and spiralling health-care costs.
Mr. Charest was quick to join in Mr. Bouchard's criticism. The two former federal Progressive-Conservative cabinet colleagues, who became political rivals in Quebec, suddenly found common ground again, and Mr. Charest pounced on Ms. Marois for deliberately fanning the flames of racial intolerance.
"Ms. Marois has a choice. She can do politics based on the lowest common denominator or the highest in order to elevate the debate. She has chosen the lowest common denominator," Mr. Charest said.
The Premier also agreed with Mr. Bouchard that the enthusiasm for sovereignty has faded. For Mr. Charest, the PQ Leader is fighting a rearguard battle and neglecting the more important issues.
Struggling to keep her composure, Ms. Marois accused the Premier of extinguishing the aspirations of Quebeckers. "He is unable to act when it counts, whether in defence of the French language or the defence of Quebec values," she said in the National Assembly.
Later, in a news conference, she referred to Mr. Bouchard as a "nagging mother-in-law," suggesting that he was out of step with Quebec reality. "I don't define myself as a radical. I define myself as a sovereigntist who believes in the Quebec identity," Ms. Marois said.
She found some comfort in the fact that Mr. Bouchard said he was still a sovereigntist, even though it was clear that he didn't believe sovereignty was possible to achieve.
Mr. Bouchard's outlook clashed with the more positive vision on sovereignty that his predecessor Jacques Parizeau outlined in a book published last fall. Mr. Parizeau said Quebec independence was more necessary now than ever, and he referred to critics such as Mr. Bouchard as "declinologues" - pointing a finger at those who repeatedly projected unfounded pessimism about Quebec's future.
During a brief encounter with reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Bouchard was asked to comment on Mr. Parizeau's critical assessment of his vision. "Can we hold a scrum without talking about Parizeau," he snapped.
Members of the PQ caucus compared the two former party leaders, with some MNAs clearly siding with Mr. Parizeau's position.
"If Mr. Bouchard is too tired to continue the fight, I will tell him that I will continue it with my colleagues and with Ms. Marois. We will continue to fight to achieve Quebec political independence," PQ MNA Bernard Drainville said.
Some federalists warned that it would be a serious mistake to embrace Mr. Bouchard's negative assessment of sovereignty's prospects.
"To say that support for sovereignty was in decline is a fact," federal NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair warned yesterday. "We can all notice it. But it would be the gravest of errors in Canadian and Quebec politics to declare the sovereignty option dead."Report Typo/Error
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