Along with hockey, politics is a national sport in Quebec. But even the most passionate political observers are close to overdosing as they have watched a string of four televised debates in the past week alone.
At the centre of them all was Pauline Marois, the perceived frontrunner with 10 days to go until the election. Not known to be a great debater, the Parti Québécois leader has made every effort to come across as calm and authoritative – premier material. All this while avoiding swipes from her left and from her right, from the ultra-sovereigntist and from the federalist, not to forget the disillusioned separatist sitting in between.
The mere fact that she was there is remarkable. Just a year ago, her 31-year political career looked all but over after a series of resignations threatened her leadership of a party notoriously prone to self-destruction.
But she weathered the storm with a resilience Quebeckers came to admire, and they nicknamed her “Dame de béton” – The Concrete Lady. But the betrayal of the seven MNAs – sparked by a controversial bill that could help Quebec City bring back an NHL franchise – left cracks in the concrete. Four of the defectors (including former premier Jacques Parizeau’s wife, Lisette Lapointe) were highly regarded within the party as well as being diehard separatists.
So to win the party back, Ms. Marois is going where no PQ leader has been before: She proposes a stiffer language law and new rules that will make it harder for immigrants who don’t speak French to run for public office.
Such a hardline approach has the English community reeling and even made waves within the PQ ranks.
“I am not looking for a head-on confrontation with the English community,” Ms. Marois says from her campaign bus en route to Quebec City. “But we need to take clear measures to indicate that French is the workplace language of Quebec.”
And the strategy seems to have sparked an astonishing comeback: According to the latest polls, Pauline Marois, now 63, could become the first woman to govern Quebec.
With her campaign bus parked in front of the Cinéma Beaubien, an independent theatre that showcases Quebec films, Ms. Marois tries to make her way to Molson Park across the street. She is set to shower the cultural industry with millions, but resident of Rosemont intercept her at every step to shake her hand or take her picture.
In this popular Montreal neighbourhood, a small and sympathetic crowd quickly gathers, drinks in her every word and heckles journalists who pound the PQ leader for her flip-flop on citizen-initiated referendums.
The scene was inconceivable just a year ago. Within the PQ, she has always been seen as a moderate or a pragmatist, although no one has ever questioned her unwavering commitment to Quebec’s independence.
Yet recent changes in the PQ’s platform and her own campaign promises have radicalized the party on such so-called identity issues as language and citizenship rights. A petition signed by 15 per cent of all eligible voters – roughly 850,000 Quebeckers – could force a third referendum on sovereignty, according to the PQ’s new commitment to citizen-initiated referendums.
“To reunite the party, she had to bring herself to adopt radical measures,” observes a PQ éminence grise, who has counselled all of the party’s leaders since René Lévesque.
But is Ms. Marois simply buying time and peace in the party by catering to hardline separatists – the balancing act all PQ leaders have had to master? Or has the former social worker, whose husband made a fortune in real estate (she’s often caricaturized as Tintin’s Castafiore because of her love for jewels and high-end heels), really turned radical? And who will be left to defend Canada if she wins and calls another referendum on sovereignty, which she plans to do at the earliest opportunity?
“If it were up to me, I would do it tomorrow morning,” she says repeatedly – but she promptly adds: “I will hold a referendum when I will feel assured that Quebeckers want to form a country.” Accordingly, she refuses to commit to a referendum in her first mandate.