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Francois Legault, poses in his Montreal home on July 11, 2011. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Francois Legault, poses in his Montreal home on July 11, 2011. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Quebec Election

CAQ leader takes aim at Charest as election looms Add to ...

It is a rare day a politician admits he did not deserve an advantage, but the leader of Quebec’s new right-leaning party admits his immediate rise to the top of polls a year ago was unearned.

Reverting to the usual patterns of his profession, however, François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, now running third with an election looming, quickly lays the responsibility elsewhere.

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“A year ago the PQ was in big trouble, Liberals were upset. We have to be careful when we are looking at those polls,” Mr. Legault said in an interview. He does not mention his own inability to hold the spotlight, his party’s lack of funds and its failure to attract many true star candidates, at least so far.

But selectivity doesn’t make Mr. Legault’s reading incorrect. Indeed, last year as his movement became a party, absorbed the rival Action démocratique du Quebec, and took on floor-crossers to arrive at nine members of the legislature, his opponents seemed locked into disastrous courses.

The Parti Québécois was imploding, with a series of high-profile defections that seemed to portend a career end for party Leader Pauline Marois. A year ago, even Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal partisans were up in arms over his refusal to call a public inquiry into corrupt contracting practices between government and construction companies.

Today, Mr. Charest is widely expected to call an election next week for a vote to take place Sept. 4 – nearly two weeks before the Charbonneau commission resumes its examination into corruption. Ms. Marois quashed her party revolt and was given the nickname “Concrete Lady” – a moniker which is somewhat more graceful in French: “La dame de béton.”

And as Mr. Charest and Ms. Marois faced off over the spring student-protest crisis, Mr. Legault backed the government’s tuition hike and protest crackdown. The CAQ slipped decisively into obscurity as the province split over students.

In fact, Mr. Charest “has been very successful making sure in recent months we don’t discuss corruption any more. He was responsible for creating this crisis in Quebec, and it was a strategy, I think,” Mr. Legault said.

Mr. Legault believes the student issue will not define the entire campaign, which will turn on corruption and other issues he sees as strengths of his party – an agenda tied to shrinking bureaucracy, streamlining regulation and economic development.

As an accountant and former businessman who helped found Air Transat and was its first chief executive, Mr. Legault keeps economic development at the heart of his mission.

“I think voters are very volatile right now. We don’t know where they are going to vote,” he said, taking a call on the road back to Montreal from Victoriaville, where he campaigned with one of his more seasoned legislators, Sylvie Roy.

Mr. Legault, whose party will campaign with a budget of about $2-million, around a quarter of the funds of his two main rivals, has taken to Twitter with a vengeance, engaging in nearly around-the-clock debate with opponents, citizens, journalists and Internet trolls.

It’s a low-budget way of getting on the radar of journalists and others engaged in politics, he says.

Unlike the sovereigntist PQ and the federalist Liberals, Mr. Legault is campaigning with a promise to put the question of Quebec independence on ice for 10 years. Some critics, including his own former candidate, Kamal Lutfi, have criticized him for failing to take a stand on what is still a defining question in Quebec politics.

Mr. Legault, a former PQ member, says Quebec politics have been frozen by the question for too long. He says about half his candidates in the next election will be easy to identify as staunch federalists.

“We’ve lost 40 years debating and dividing Quebeckers on this issue. We have the capacity to be better than we are, and we need to stop being divided,” he said.

Mr. Legault may want to put sovereignty on ice, but it’s unlikely Mr. Charest will let him in the upcoming campaign. The Quebec Premier has won three elections, in part by accusing the PQ of hiding its agenda to break up Canada. He’s sure to have some of that ammo in store for Mr. Legault.

“I’m ready for it,” Mr. Legault said. “It’s a sideshow, and it’s the only thing Mr. Charest has left.”

Follow on Twitter: @Perreaux

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