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Coalition Avenir Qubec leader Francois Legault speaks with supporters while campaigning Monday, August 27, 2012 in Boucherville, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Coalition Avenir Qubec leader Francois Legault speaks with supporters while campaigning Monday, August 27, 2012 in Boucherville, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

QUEBEC ELECTION

François Legault’s eccentric electoral recipe Add to ...

“It gave me the impression that he wanted to win the youth vote to further his personal ambitions,” says former premier Bernard Landry, who was then finance minister.

When Mr. Landry resigned as PQ leader in June of 2005 after his defeat by Mr. Charest in the 2003 general elections, many of the youth leaders who gravitate around Mr. Legault, such as François Rebello (now a CAQ candidate), pressed him to run. But at the last minute, he left them in the lurch.

“It really was for personal reasons,” Mr. Koskinen insists. One of Mr. Legault’s two sons – now teenagers – was having difficulties, and his wife, Isabelle, gave him an ultimatum: It’s the leadership race or us.

But nothing compares to the letdown PQ members felt when Mr. Legault left the party in June of 2009 – to launch another party less then two years later with Charles Sirois, a businessman with unimpeachable federalist credentials. This uncommon partnership led to the creation of a platform that pledges a 10-year truce on the sovereignty debate.

“In my cabinet, he was the most fiery sovereigntist. He was asking me to hold a referendum every week!” says Mr. Landry, who is still “astounded” by Mr. Legault’s about-face.

But Mr. Koskinen says Mr. Legault’s former PQ colleagues have a selective memory. When André Boisclair campaigned heavily on sovereignty in 2007, presenting it as the cure to all of Quebec’s ills, the PQ had its poorest showing in the popular vote since 1973 – it finished third and lost its official opposition status.

The accountant drew the obvious conclusions, his close adviser says. “From then on, his thinking evolved,” Mr. Koskinen says. “And he expressed his thoughts quite publicly. To say that he abruptly changed is a show of bad faith.”

During a press conference on Thursday in the Beauce region, Mr. Legault sliced the air with his hands as he rebutted his rivals’ claims that he can’t be trusted.

“I have spent 10 years at Transat, 10 years with the Parti Québécois, and I have committed to spending the next 10 years with the Coalition. I have been with Isabelle for 22 years,” he added, hugging his wife, who has been campaigning at his side, a novelty for the normally reserved Outremont shop owner. “I have no lessons to take from anyone on consistency.”

But Mr. Legault’s platform is a bit of all things to everyone. He wants a smaller government à la Stephen Harper, yet he promotes an economic interventionism that would use the province’s investment arms to protect Quebec’s business champions from foreign takeovers. He calls himself a pragmatist, yet his prescription for the province’s health-care woes – a family doctor for everyone within a year – has got eyes rolling throughout Quebec.

So has his plan to eliminate 4,000 jobs at Hydro-Québec to pay for his electoral promises, as it is unlikely that voluntary departures would suffice, assuring a head-on fight with its powerhouse union.

Whether Quebeckers can trust Mr. Legault or not, however, other Canadians definitely cannot count on him to defend the country. The CAQ leader is adamant: He will neither promote sovereignty nor defend federalism.

“He has his moments of doubt,” one of his senior staffers says, “but once he makes up his mind, it’s do or die.”

The CAQ has attracted the disaffected from both Liberals and Péquistes, and Mr. Legault has scrambled throughout the campaign to explain the practical implications of his position. But in Quebec, there is a sense that the coalition’s starting point may be untenable.

If the PQ wins and decides to hold a referendum on independence, Mr. Legault says he will vote against it. But he refuses to say if he would lead or even join the “No” campaign. Whatever he does, it could break the CAQ – a party built on the premise that the last thing most Quebeckers want is another divisive sovereignty vote – into factions.

Mr. Legault has pegged his political fate to an unprecedented level of vagueness on the issue that has defined Quebec politics for four decades. “We are a coalition,” he says. “You will not succeed in categorizing us, collectively or individually, in the sovereigntist or the federalist camp.”

Roaming the province’s restaurants and soccer fields, the businessman Mr. Legault has been selling his coalition like a salesman pushes a shiny new product. Give up the old quarrels for the sake of real reforms in education and health care, he has been pleading: “Try us !”

When votes are counted after Tuesday’s hotly contested election, the results will be simple to analyze for Mr. Legault. Either Quebeckers trusted him, or they didn’t buy into his coalition’s grand ambitions and dishevelled construction.

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