Pauline Marois served under all of the PQ’s premiers and remained loyal to them, observes a former Parizeau adviser. “This is the first time that she will set the pace, and no one knows if she will walk briskly or slowly,” he notes. “Half of the PQ members I speak to are convinced she is in a hurry, while the other half is as convinced that she will take her time.”
If she keeps her cards close to her chest on a referendum, there is no such evasiveness when it comes to protecting the French language.
A PQ government would make Bill 101 more strict and extend the reach of the law, which protects the right to work in French to companies with as few as 11 employees. “More and more immigrants go to work for small businesses,” Ms Marois explains. We need to take clear measures to indicate that French is the workplace language of Quebec.”
Controversially, the bill would force students to attend a French CEGEP (Quebec’s two-year program between high school and university), unless their parents are Quebeckers who were schooled in English. “As an adult, you are free to study in English, but not in a public institution,” says Ms. Marois, who has herself tried for years to improve her command of English.
This bold stance has been greeted with uneasiness even within her own ranks. Longtime PQ adviser Louis Bernard even came out publicly against it: “How far will we go?”
The real language battleground
Students leaving Montreal’s Dawson College chatter loudly as they grab a Bixi rental bike or head to the subway, both French and English accents clearly audible. Al- most one in five is francophone, and one in four allophone.
Many of them come from less-affluent districts, says history teacher Frédéric Bastien, and cannot afford private-school immersion programs. “These are Hait- ians or North Africans or Latinos, who come here to learn English and improve their chances of getting a better job. After 11 years of French schooling, they don’t suddenly become anglophones.”
Mr. Bastien describes himself as a nationalist, and says Ms. Marois should focus on anglophones: Almost 30 per cent of Quebec’s anglos cannot converse in French, according to a 2010 Statistics Canada study.
Language law is always an explosive issue, but Ms. Marois created an uproar this week by announcing a PQ government would require anyone running for public office to pass a French proficiency test – part of a beefed-up version of a bill on Quebec citizenship introduced in 2007.
When civil-rights advocates blasted the measure as unconstitutional, she had to retreat. Only new immigrants would be subject to the test, with current Quebec residents exempted.
“She understands that Quebeckers won’t say yes to independence on economic grounds only – they will do it for emotional reasons, hence the importance of bringing identity issues to the forefront of the debate,” says Joseph Facal, now a political commentator and business professor at HEC Montreal.
Although a former PQ minister, however, he was born in Uruguay, and has serious reservations about restricting access to public life on the ability to speak French.
Ms. Marois also had to backtrack this week on the citizen-initiated referendums (dubbed RIP for référendum d’initiative populaire).
Her PQ colleagues, past and present, realize Ms. Marois went along with the RIP idea reluctantly. “She knew deep down that this is not the way to go with such a fundamental decision, but she had to make concessions,” Prof. Facal says.
Jean-Herman Guay, professor of applied politics at the University of Sherbrooke, says she “is torn between two competing realities.” On one side, she needs to reassure her base; on the other, she has to tone down her discourse, because most Quebeckers are “fed up with talk of another referendum.”
And yet “if a petition with 850,000 signatures lands on her desk tomorrow morning, she is going to have an incredible amount of pressure from her party to go ahead with a referendum,” says François Legault, the former PQ minister who now leads the competing Coalition Avenir Québec.