For a man vying to become the next premier of Quebec, François Legault is not afraid of making enemies. The number of people the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future) has denigrated in his bid to shake up the province is longer than a doctor’s waiting list.
As part of his own not-so-quiet revolution, the 55-year-old politician has belittled youth for lacking a work ethic, family doctors for not taking enough patients, Hydro-Québec for overstaffing, superfluous school boards and powerful union leaders he accuses of caring only to maintain the status quo.
“I am ready to assume the political costs,” Mr. Legault says, hoping his bluntness will ring true and seduce Quebeckers.
It is a risky bet, but Gisèle Coulombe is ready to give him a chance. In a family restaurant in Montmagny, a rural town on the south shore of Quebec City, the stay-at-home mom works her way through bodyguards, political advisers and journalists to shake Mr. Legault’s hand. “I hope that you will win and start the big clean up,” she says.
Yet many Quebeckers remain skeptical toward the CAQ, the nine-month-old party that has become an unavoidable force in Quebec as it stands a close second to the Parti Québécois in the polls. Mr. Legault is not the first politician to promise the moon. And the former airline executive has been known to change his mind, to quit and to break with the past.
His latest about-face is his most spectacular: In any third referendum on independence, the former hardline separatist now says he would vote No, baffling partisans on both sides.
Can Mr. Legault be trusted? Or will he bail when the going gets tough, as his bold reforms are met by confrontation?
Liberal Premier Jean Charest and PQ Leader Pauline Marois have been pouncing on this apparent character weakness for the past two weeks, as the CAQ is the only party that has been rising consistently in the polls. With his keen political sense, Mr. Charest was the first to label Mr. Legault as “pas fiable” – unreliable – because of his outlandish electoral promises, such as cutting middle-class taxes to the eventual tune of $1.8-billion in revenue a year.
Ms. Marois picked up the “pas fiable” attacks. But for her, it’s personal. She cannot forget Mr. Legault’s decision to abandon her, the PQ and its dream of independence. For many Péquistes, this departure is nothing short of treason.
François Legault did not seem destined for politics, even though he idolized René Lévesque as a teenager. This son of a postmaster grew up in a modest family in Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue, a borough on Montreal’s West Island. Thanks to loans and bursaries, he studied accounting and finance at HEC Montreal, where he earned an MBA.
The young accountant worked for Ernst & Young for six years before jumping to Nationair, where he managed the finances of the small airline. At 29, he decided to fly solo. With partners Jean-Marc Eustache, Philippe Sureau and Lina De Cesare, he launched Transat, a vacation-package specialist with its own airline.
“He is a true self-made man,” says his closest political adviser, Martin Koskinen.
The start-up company quickly went to the stock market and turned out to be a resounding success. But in March of 1997, Mr. Legault took everyone by surprise by resigning and selling all of his shares, citing irreconcilable differences with the chief executive officer, Mr. Eustache. The two men have not spoken since, Mr. Legault confessed in 2011, while Mr. Eustache refuses adamantly to discuss the departure of his former partner, whose name does not even appear in the company history on Transat’s website.
This was the first of Mr. Legault’s dramatic surprises. In 1998, the young millionaire was appointed industry minister under Lucien Bouchard three months before he even stood for election, so pleased was the PQ premier to attract a star business candidate, a rarity for the party.
After Mr. Legault finally was elected that November in the riding of Rousseau, in the Lanaudière region northeast of Montreal, Mr. Bouchard gave him the education portfolio. He didn’t love it at first, but grew passionate about it – today, the CAQ leader’s first priority is to fight the province’s alarming dropout rate.
However, Mr. Legault provoked another crisis at the beginning of 2001. He threatened to quit over the $400-million he had promised to universities but could no longer deliver after a lost budget battle. Mr. Bouchard had to fly back from Europe to quell the crisis within his cabinet, where many thought that Mr. Legault had violated sacred ministerial solidarity.