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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 ...

“She’s competent. But she has no charisma,” says Anne-Marie Gingras, political science professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “She’s not the best of the leaders, just the least bad among them.”

Still, if the PQ’s recent surge in the polls has nothing to do with a sudden wave of Maroismania, she deserves full credit for engineering her party’s revival. By focusing attention on the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values, which would ban public employees from wearing overt religious symbols, Ms. Marois has captured part of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec’s clientele and papered over the reasons the PQ had been in decline in the first place – its failure to draw in young and immigrant voters.

Forcing voters to pick sides regarding its Charter of Values, which enjoys majority support, has also left the opposition parties to split the anti-Charter vote. “To express loud and clear the principles that are dear to us, we will adopt a Charter that affirms the Quebec values of gender equality and secularism,” Ms. Marois said at a rally this week. “And to get there,” added Dominique Payette, one of her star candidates, “you know we need a majority government.”

Changing the conversation

Such talk would have been laughable not long ago. Seven years ago this month, the PQ was relegated to third place in the 2007 election, its popular vote at a 35-year low. It had become the party of a single generation whose decline seemed written in the cards.

Quebec looked to be undergoing a realignment of its party system, with the PQ ceding its status as the “blue” alternative to the provincial Liberals to the upstart Action Démocratique du Québec. The PQ, like the generation that founded it, was everything the ADQ was not: statist, anti-clerical and separatist.

If it was to survive, the PQ needed to reach beyond its aging base to an electorate that harboured none of the resentments of Péquiste elders – or the sixties-era idealism that inspired early secessionists. It especially needed to appeal to ADQ voters who were curiously attracted to the traditional cultural nationalism of an earlier pre-PQ era when the Union Nationale ruled the province.

From the moment she became leader, Ms. Marois set out to court voters of the ADQ and its successor party, the Coalition Avenir Québec. It was a delicate balancing act, catering to both a PQ base with an appetite for sovereignty and state-building and these so-called Caquistes, who prefer smaller government and softer nationalism. Ms. Marois found the answer in her Charter.

The idea of a charter aimed at codifying the separation between church and state was not in itself controversial. With its civil law tradition, Quebec has always differed from the rest of Canada in its preference for written rules to govern the relationship between individuals and the state. But the PQ’s charter is not so much an affirmation of secularism as a limit on the freedom of expression of religious minorities. It appeals to Québécois insecurities, casting diversity as a threat to cultural survival.

Many colleagues within the PQ knew this was a slippery slope and warned Ms. Marois against it. They knew it meant dividing Quebeckers and writing off any hope of expanding the party’s base beyond old stock francophones. They knew it meant alienating the immigrant communities the party desperately needed to attract if its sovereigntist dream was to outlive the generation that founded it.

Yet, the imperative of short-term survival won out. Just last summer, the PQ had slipped to the mid-twenties in the polls and newly chosen Liberal leader Philippe Couillard looked to be cruising toward victory. The prospect of the PQ finishing again in third place seemed real.

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