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Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard speaks to reporters following a Quebec provincial election leaders debate in Montreal, Thursday, March 27, 2014. (GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard speaks to reporters following a Quebec provincial election leaders debate in Montreal, Thursday, March 27, 2014.

(GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Couillard on hot seat at Quebec party leaders’ second debate Add to ...

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard stood his ground despite being jolted by a barrage of attacks in Thursday’s televised leaders’ debate.

As front-runner in the Quebec election campaign, Mr. Couillard had to defend his integrity, his opposition to the secular charter and charges that he refuses to defend Quebec values and the French language.

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Trailing badly in public opinion polls, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault inflicted the harshest criticism against his Liberal counterpart. “All you do is skate around the issues,” Mr. Legault said in a heated exchange with Mr. Couillard. “You can’t defend Quebec values. You are hesitant … You don’t want to defend the French language.”

Mr. Couillard fought back, especially when Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois accused him of scaring voters with the idea that her party was out to trap Quebeckers into another referendum.

“People want nothing to do with your referendum … Stop saying there won’t be one when everyone knows you want to rush to hold one,” Mr. Couillard snapped back as he smirked at the PQ leader when she argued that there would be no referendum unless Quebeckers wanted it.

“Don’t laugh. This is not a laughing matter,” she responded. “Quebec wants an honest government.”

The PQ leader’s strategy was clear throughout the debate. This would be an election about honesty and integrity, she argued repeatedly.

Mr. Couillard was forced to deflect criticism about his integrity over his business dealings with the former head of the McGill University health centre, Arthur Porter, who faces fraud charges. “My program for Quebec isn’t about mudslinging, it’s about the economy,” Mr. Couillard said.

But that didn’t stop him from reminding Ms. Marois that her husband, Claude Blanchet, who had to defend himself after the Charbonneau Commission into corruption heard of efforts by the Quebec Federation of Labour to use him to influence Ms. Marois to oppose a probe into the construction industry.

“There was never a deal,” Ms. Marois shot back at Mr. Couillard. “We fought for a public inquiry. I was a cement wall against efforts to influence me.”

But the attacks against Mr. Couillard didn’t stop during a key segment of the debate. Clearly on the defensive, he tried to redirect the charges accusing Ms. Marois of having no scruples. But his efforts to deflect the attacks were to no avail. “This is not about mudslinging, it’s about integrity. People need to know how you managed these matters,” Ms. Marois said.

Mr. Legault pulled no punches as he levelled the strongest criticism of the night against Mr. Couillard.

“There is an elephant in the room tonight and it’s Mr. Porter,” Mr. Legault said. “How could you do business with someone who was supposed to be working full-time as a hospital director?”

Mr. Couillard insisted his company never got off the ground and that it remained inactive. “It never existed … and I’m happy it never existed,” Mr. Couillard said.

The offensive against Mr. Couillard didn’t stop there. His opponents attempted to link him to predecessor Jean Charest’s opposition to holding a public inquiry on corruption in the construction industry.

“I’m truly astounded,” Ms. Marois stated. “There are 18 of your candidates who were part of the Charest government and were resolutely opposed to a public inquiry.”

Then came charges that Mr. Couillard benefited from placing earnings in a tax haven when he worked as a neurosurgeon in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.

“It was perhaps legal but the question is: What is moral? Why didn’t you deposit your earnings in a caisse populaire right here in Quebec?” asked Québec Solidaire Leader Françoise David.

Luckily for Mr. Couillard, the debate turned to the economy and public finances, where he was more comfortable in defending his positions and challenging his opponents, a strategy he will attempt to pursue to maintain his lead in the polls as the campaign enters the final stretch toward the April 7 vote.

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