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Flanked by his staff, Quebec Premier Jean Charest walks to Question Period at the National Assembly on Feb. 15, 2011. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Flanked by his staff, Quebec Premier Jean Charest walks to Question Period at the National Assembly on Feb. 15, 2011. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Letter from Quebec

Why Jean Charest is laughing again Add to ...

There’s a cackle echoing from an idyllic resort town named North Hatley, a couple hours east of Montreal. It’s Premier Jean Charest at his summer home, having a laugh at his good fortune.

Just a few weeks ago, every fallen chunk of Montreal freeway concrete added to a pervasive sense Mr. Charest’s rule was tumbling toward the end. Now it’s the sovereignty movement coming apart at the seams, leaving Liberals with an even chance of winning yet another election, and tempting Mr. Charest to swing for a record-tying fourth mandate as premier.

Mr. Charest has a favourite riff, borrowed heavily from Mark Twain, about the numerous times he’s been pronounced politically dead. As fortune would have it, a hacker planted a fake report on a newspaper website early Tuesday that Mr. Charest had keeled over, giving him a chance to take another swing. “It’s not the first time Le Devoir has pronounced me dead, but it’s the first time they’ve used this angle,” Mr. Charest said, clearly tickled.

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Charest wasn’t nearly this healthy, or jocular. As spring took hold, the Parti Québécois and its leader, Pauline Marois, were ahead in polls as the Liberal government endured an extended series of scandalous revelations, often to do with the province’s construction industry.

Just as cries of corruption died down, Montreal’s decrepit bridges, tunnels and overpasses, many of which are the property of the province of Quebec, became a national embarrassment for their sorry state.

A couple months later, there’s scarcely a fully functioning route in or out of Montreal, but Mr. Charest is still having a chuckle.

On his right flank, Mr. Charest was already relishing the anticipated arrival of a second right-leaning party, led by François Legault, to hive off francophone votes from his opponents. Now it’s the left wing nationalists who are splintering away, with the possibility of a third left-leaning alternative being formed.

(For those keeping score, the Liberals are currently opposed by the PQ and Québec Solidaire on the left, and Action démocratique du Québec on the right. Two additional movements are now contemplating joining the fray on each flank.)

On Sunday, some prominent and lesser-known sovereignty activists will gather to discuss a new movement to create a sovereign Quebec. Normally, this would be a good thing for the Parti Québécois. An independence movement should welcome a gathering of the grassroots to dream, create new strategies and energize people.

But usually the idea is to bolster the established party, not replace it.

Over the past couple months, five members of Ms. Marois’s caucus, including several prominents, have left the PQ to sit as independents. They cited complaints about Ms. Marois’s iron rule and an oddly specific complaint about a PQ-sponsored bill to protect Quebec City’s arena deal from lawsuits.

It turns out plans to explore forming a new party started burbling soon afterward. And right from the start, there was a giant lurking in the shadows: Jacques Parizeau.

Since the PQ was founded in the 1970s, Mr. Parizeau has been the keeper of the flame for the more die-hard and hard-line sovereigntists. He may be long retired from politics, but it was he who blasted Ms. Marois last fall for her slow approach relying on good governance to win over the people.

When the three most prominent PQ MNAs quit the party in June, including Mr. Parizeau’s wife, Lisette Lapointe, Mr. Parizeau was lurking in the corridor, telling a reporter from Le Soleil that he was “well aware” of the symbolism that accompanied his presence. And it’s Ms. Lapointe who was first out of the gate expressing ardent interest in Le nouveau mouvement pour le Québec.

So at Sunday’s founding meeting in Montreal, political watchers will be taking headcounts and noting the prominents in the crowd as they try to figure out how far it could go. Most of all, they will be searching for the guiding hand of Mr. Parizeau.

If they listen carefully, they might hear Jean Charest having a chuckle by the lake a couple hours away.

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