Mario Beaulieu, the new Leader of the Bloc Québécois, is a long-time hardline separatist who is betting a shift in strategy to an aggressive promotion of independence is just the ticket to revive the moribund party.
But the former head of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, a pro-sovereignty organization, faces a huge challenge trying to reignite the flame of separatism among an unreceptive Quebec electorate that recently turfed out the Parti Québécois in the April 7 provincial election.
Mr. Beaulieu, 54, was elected as the head of the once thriving Bloc on Saturday in a close win over the only other leadership candidate, moderate Bloc MP André Bellavance.
He acknowledged in a Radio-Canada interview over the weekend that his approach represents a “significant change in strategy,” but that the old tactic of simply defending Quebec’s interests in Ottawa has reached its limits.
Even this early in the game, signs of discord within the party surfaced when former leader Gilles Duceppe criticized Mr. Beaulieu’s references in his victory speech to a sense of defeatism in the party over the past 20 years.
And the president of a Bloc riding association in Montreal, Jerry Beaudoin, quit over the weekend saying he cannot work with the new Leader.
Mr. Duceppe also attacked Mr. Beaulieu for allegedly joining in when some in the crowd on Saturday chanted the infamous Front de libération du Québec slogan, “Nous vaincrons!” (“We will conquer”).
The Bloc was reduced to a rump of just four MPs, from 47 seats, in the 2011 federal election, as the NDP under the charismatic Jack Layton swept the province in an orange tide.
The Bloc – Quebec’s dominant party in Ottawa in the 1990s and 2000s – has been struggling ever since Mr. Duceppe stepped down on the disastrous election night after losing his own Montreal riding to an NDP candidate.
Mr. Duceppe’s successor, Daniel Paillé, resigned for health reasons last December after failing to make much progress in nursing the Bloc back to health and raising its public profile.
“Tensions within the party have existed for several years,” said Alain Gagnon, a political science professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal.
“Is it its role to defend Quebec within the federation or to lay the groundwork for separation?” he said.
Mr. Beaulieu has decided to go for an all-or-nothing strategy with the independence option, Mr. Gagnon said.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult” to build momentum by emphasizing the use of separation as a wedge issue in Ottawa, he added.
“I don’t see how the party will be able to mobilize many Quebeckers with such a confrontational turn of mind.”
Mr. Beaulieu told Radio-Canada his goal is to sign up 50,000 new members over the next year, in time for an expected federal election in 2015.
The party membership currently stands at about 19,000.
Mr. Beaulieu must also work at rallying the Bloc’s base to his strategy.
His leadership rival, Mr. Bellavance, had the backing of the other three Bloc MPs.
Of the 19,000 members eligible to vote in the leadership race, 58.5 per cent of them cast a ballot.
That’s up from the less than 40 per cent recorded in the previous contest, in 2011.
Mr. Beaulieu told Radio-Canada it was not his intention to diminish the importance of the work Mr. Duceppe and other leaders did for the party.
“What I am saying is that we’re now putting independence in the foreground, in all of our actions,” said Mr. Beaulieu, who has made it his mission to defend and promote the public use of French in multicultural Montreal.
He founded the Mouvement Montréal français in 2006 and the Mouvement Québec français in 2011.