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Pauline Marois celebrates the PQ’s victory in 2012, which made her the first women to be premier in Quebec’s history. (PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Pauline Marois celebrates the PQ’s victory in 2012, which made her the first women to be premier in Quebec’s history. (PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Déjà vu: Sovereignty and the leader trying to give an old dream new life Add to ...

Pauline Marois is an unlikely figure to lead the Parti Québécois out of the desert.

Past PQ leaders – René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard – all cut a sophisticated figure. They were articulate and worldly. Though she aspired to lead from the moment she entered politics in 1981, Ms. Marois has never projected the authority of her predecessors. She held every major cabinet job, but never learned English.

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Yet, besides arguably Mr. Parizeau, no PQ leader has been as unequivocally separatist as the appliance repairman’s daughter, who turns 65 this month. “It’s for sovereignty that I got involved in the PQ in the 1970s and it’s still for sovereignty that I get up in the morning,” Ms. Marois told L’actualité magazine in 2012. “A woman who gives birth to the country, now that would be interesting.”

With a majority government credibly within her sights, Ms. Marois may get her chance. The Quebec election, called this week for April 7, could set the wheels in motion for a vast public consultation on the pros and cons of sovereignty – paralleling a similar initiative that followed the PQ’s return to power in 1994 after eight years in opposition.

That effort prepared the terrain for the 1995 referendum, with results that haunt the country still.

Many PQ hardliners would certainly like nothing more than to pursue a timeline similar to the calendar the party followed 20 years ago as it led the country to the brink of break-up. Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet recently mused that there has been a referendum in every “PQ cycle in power” since it first formed a government in 1976. The pressure on Ms. Marois to uphold this tradition will intensify if the PQ wins next month.

Indeed, many Péquistes want a last kick at the can before the generation that founded the PQ (and remains its main base of support) kicks the bucket. The optimists note that support for sovereignty currently hovers in similar territory – around 40 per cent – to where it stood in 1994. Back then, the naysayers were proven wrong when the “Yes” side came to within a whisker of winning barely a year later. They insist that public opinion can be channelled in their favour, especially if the PQ uses the levers of a majority government to promote sovereignty.

What’s more, without strong federalist voices in Quebec or Ottawa to make the case for Canada, it could be a better bet this time. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is largely despised in Quebec. Tom Mulcair’s Quebec-heavy New Democratic caucus can’t afford to alienate sovereigntists. And Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s very surname evokes, for many francophone Quebeckers, their worst memories of betrayal.

Pierre Trudeau promised reconciliation after the 1980 referendum, only to later repatriate the Constitution over Quebec’s objections. His son’s entry into a referendum campaign would, at the very least, be a double-edged sword for federalists.

The château had to go

Then again, Ms. Marois is no Lucien Bouchard. Could she possibly succeed where he failed?

Her transition from solid second to PQ leader has been rocky. The daughter of a fourth-grade dropout father and housecleaner mom, she grew up south of Quebec City, became a social worker and married her teenage sweetheart. Though of equally humble origins, he got rich quick as a real-estate developer and the couple soon displayed all the trappings of wealth, building an ostentatious château on an island near Montreal.

Suddenly, Ms. Marois was provincial – but also nouveau riche. And her lifestyle – regal coiffes, jewels and flamboyant outfits – mere quirks for a cabinet minister, became problems for a leader seeking to connect with average voters. Before long, the image makers were dressing Ms. Marois in solid-colour pantsuits. The coiffe got cropped and the château was sold.

But molded by her handlers, the unstoppable Superwoman who had given birth to three of her four children in office and embodied defining public policies such as $5-a-daycare and secular school boards, seemed to lose her personality. She was stiff and scripted. Though she has grown more comfortable as leader, she remains a weak speaker with little presence or ability to stir a crowd.

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