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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L) and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe meet prior to the French language leaders' debate in Ottawa April 13, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election on May 2. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L) and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe meet prior to the French language leaders' debate in Ottawa April 13, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election on May 2. (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

Harper uses leaders' skirmish to further his majority agenda Add to ...

Stephen Harper seized on his opponents' squabbling over Quebec sovereignty in Wednesday night's French-language debate to buttress his appeal for a majority government that he promised would allow the country to focus on important concerns like the economy.

Sparks started to fly in the latter portions of the debate, when the topic turned to Canada-Quebec relations. And as Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff tussled over sovereignty and NDP Leader Jack Layton suggested he would move towards re-opening the Constitution, Mr. Harper used the moment to underscore why the country needs to move beyond the recent succession of minority governments.

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"Imagine another minority government, with these three parties trying to form a government. The same old linguistic and constitutional battles," Mr. Harper said. "For us Conservatives, we respect the jurisdictions of the provinces and seek accommodations for Quebec's differences. We focus on the economy, job creation, affordable services, without hiking taxes. These are the priorities of the 21st century."

The French-language debate, where the leaders target Quebec's 75 seats, took on a different dynamic than the English debate a day before: this time, Mr. Duceppe, the dominant political player in the province, was more of a target, and Mr. Harper less.

For portions of the debate, it seemed that Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton were the main combatants. Mr. Ignatieff, who was criticized after Tuesday's English debate for going on the attack but not painting an image of how he would act as prime minister, turned most questions to presentations of his platform pledges - but that tended to keep him away from the fray.

Though he stuck to the low-key tone he adopted the night before, Mr. Harper's was more targeted with his message to the French-speaking audience. He repeatedly touted benefits for " les régions" - the areas of the province outside Montreal where his Tories compete mainly with the Bloc.

Mr. Harper aimed his message at the regions: He listed local economic-development projects funded by his government and said Bloc MPs can't bring the same benefits.

"It's only a Conservative government, Conservative MPs, that deliver the goods in the regions. It's necessary to have your region included in the government," Mr. Harper said.

The debate forced Mr. Duceppe, whose campaign has focused on stopping Mr. Harper from getting a majority government, to extol the virtues of sovereignty, saying that the trend since the end of the Second World War has been nations and people obtaining their political freedom.

Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, said constitutional reform is not at the top of Quebeckers minds. But Mr. Layton, who is riding a wave of popularity in the province and trying to convert it into votes, said he would try to launch constitutional talks. "It would be difficult, but we are prepared to take the first steps," he said.

One key point in the debate came when the leaders were asked what each of them would do to create jobs.

Mr. Harper argued low taxes would encourage growth, and Mr. Layton offered subsidies for each job created while Mr. Ignatieff used it to talk about the Liberal's "family pack" and how his party would offer wide-ranging social services help to Canadians, including childcare and health care.

"You might need job training, but you might also have to take care of your older parents at home. That's where we would try to offer help, in a first Liberal budget," Mr. Ignatieff said in response to a question from a Quebecker selected by the broadcaster. "We provide an overall vision that provides hope."

Mr. Harper blamed the other parties for having blocked his crime bills, using a theme that is more popular in rural areas that are currently represented by the Bloc, according to polls. "When it comes to drug traffickers, sexual predators, pardons for serious offenders, the opposition parties refused to pass those bills. With a majority government, we will finally pass those bills," he said.

The two-way debate between Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton appeared to turn on a critical point in Quebec: who will garner those votes aimed against Mr. Harper.

In his one-on-one against Mr. Layton, Mr. Duceppe clearly made a pitch to Quebeckers who are currently tempted to vote for the NDP, saying that the Bloc is the only party in Quebec that can prevent the Conservatives from obtaining a majority. "We have proven our effectiveness," he said, referring to his party's strong performance in the 2008 election.

"He is still there," Mr. Layton said, pointing to Mr. Harper.

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