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Coalition Avenir Québec Leader Francois Legault, left, questions Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard as Quebec Solidaire Leader Manon Masse looks on during a leaders' debate in Montreal, Que., on Sept. 13, 2018.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard used a televised debate to accuse his chief rival François Legault of striking fear into the hearts of immigrants in Quebec with his promise to cut the number of new arrivals and to try to expel those who fail language and values tests.

In a rare moment of drama between the two front-runners in the Quebec election campaign, Mr. Legault, Leader of the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec, opened a debate segment on immigration Thursday night by demanding that the Liberal Leader apologize for the words of his candidate who said the CAQ wants to “cleanse immigrants” from the province.

Mr. Legault repeated the demand several times and added that Liberal Finance Minister Carlos Leitao – himself an immigrant from Portugal who didn’t speak French when he first arrived – called his party racist. “Quebeckers are fed up with having a lecturer like Mr. Couillard tell them they are intolerant,” Mr. Legault said.

Mr. Couillard pointed out that his candidate apologized for the “cleansing” comment and then added: “Mr. Legault, do you know why some people react like that? You scare them.”

Mr. Couillard needed a strong debate performance to grab momentum ahead of the Oct. 1 vote. Like Mr. Legault, he mostly delivered a clean performance but the difference is that Mr. Legault has been ahead of Mr. Couillard in polls for nearly a year now and let others steal the show.

The immigration portion of the debate was where the two men stood starkly apart. Mr. Legault has promised to cut the number of immigrants Quebec welcomes annually to 40,000 from the 52,388 newcomers accepted last year. The Liberals would maintain the level or boost it.

The numbers question is steeped in an argument over Quebec nationalism and the economy. Mr. Legault has said that he wants to “protect the nation” by controlling immigration more strictly to ensure Quebec isn’t overwhelmed by the English language. Mr. Couillard would keep or increase current immigration levels to make up for a rapidly aging population and worker shortage.

Quebec, in fact, only has partial control over immigrants. The proposed CAQ immigration cuts would have to come from the 30,000 economic immigrants Quebec controls, who tend to speak more French and have better job opportunities. The province has no say over refugees or family reunification cases managed by Ottawa. The province does not have the power to expel anyone.

If there was a winner in Thursday night’s debate it was likely the party leader running a distant third in the polls, Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée. With his party flirting with falling out of official party status, he had nothing to lose. He delivered the most pointed barbs and even dominated the time clock kept by Radio-Canada in an attempt to ensure equity. He suggested Mr. Legault takes inspiration for some of his policies “from the Ontario of Doug Ford.”

Observers predicted Mr. Lisée would attack Mr. Legault, whose party has dug deep into PQ support, but he also hurt Mr. Couillard during segments on health and education – two areas where the Liberals restrained spending in their first two years in government, giving them an image as heartless technocrats. “You never showed the least compassion when you had a $2-billion surplus,” Mr. Lisée said. “What you had instead was a deficit in compassion.”

Going into the debate, none of the parties had momentum. Mr. Legault’s CAQ led the Liberals by six percentage points in the most recent poll by the Leger firm released this week – essentially the same lead it has held in most polls for the past year.

Manon Massé of the left-wing fourth party, Québec Solidaire, was participating in her first debate and struggled for air time. With only four members in the last sitting of the legislature and 11-per-cent support, she was rarely the target. She also offered another explanation: “The woman. It’s a factor.”

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