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He’s the most-liked leader Quebec has had in decades, but it took years to get his brand of paternal populism just right – and to persuade voters to buy it, as they seem poised to do again on Oct. 3

François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec party, waves to supporters after a Sept. 4 campaign stop in Laval. Quebeckers will decide on Oct. 3 whether the CAQ governs the province for another four years.Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press

A decade ago, François Legault was at loose ends.

He had quit the Parti Québécois and its fading dream of independence. His comfortable life of tennis and lunches on Laurier Ave. in the posh francophone enclave of Outremont was wearing thin.

He wanted back into the action, where he had spent most of his life: teenage language activist, co-founder of an airline worth hundreds of millions of dollars, cabinet minister by his early forties.

Now, in 2011, he saw an opportunity that would take all his life experience, business savvy and political cunning to seize: He would form a new party, neither separatist nor especially attached to Canada, focused on defending Quebec’s identity and making the province richer.

A promising idea, yes, but he was starting from scratch. Figures from across the political and media landscape report being courted by the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) in those days, and turning it down.

The historian Éric Bédard was one of them. He had worked as a speechwriter for Mr. Legault in his PQ days, and still nurtured the sovereigntist flame.

When his old boss offered him a job, he teased: If you’ve given up on independence, why not just become leader of the Quebec Liberals, the old federalist adversary?

Instead of laughing, Mr. Legault fixed him with an earnest look. “The Liberal brand is no good any more,” he said.

Vintage Legault, his former colleague thought: A pragmatist almost to a fault, impatient for results, an adept reader of the public mood, he rejected the idea of leading the Liberals not because they were the enemy, but because they weren’t selling. (A spokesperson for Mr. Legault called the story false.)

“That’s him,” said Mr. Bédard recently. “He’s a marketing guy.”

Mr. Legault votes in L'Assomption, Que., on Sept. 25.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

A little more than 10 years later, Quebeckers are certainly buying what Mr. Legault is selling.

Since winning a majority government in 2018, he has soared to unprecedented approval ratings and built his party into a political machine expected to easily win the provincial election on Oct. 3.

He is not only the best-liked Premier in a generation, but the most consequential. (The Globe and Mail spoke to friends and former colleagues of Mr. Legault, who declined an interview request for this story.)

Although Mr. Legault is a man of the centre right, he is a big-state conservative with an expansive vision of the Quebec government’s authority, over the courts, over minorities and over individual choices.

That ideology was on display in his first term, as he pushed through restrictions on religious symbols and the use of English in public life while aggressively steering Quebec through the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With his folksy “mon oncle” persona, Quebec-first attitude and domineering leadership style – and through a combination of conviction and opportunistic guile – he has found the sweet spot of Quebec politics.

Mr. Legault speaks at a Sept. 22 leaders' debate with Dominique Anglade of the Liberals, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon of the Parti Québécois, co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of Québec Solidaire and Éric Duhaime of the Conservatives.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

François Legault may have sold many brands over the years, but he comes by his nationalism honestly. The man who presided over his mother’s 1956 wedding to the small-town postmaster Lucien Legault was none other than her great-uncle Lionel Groulx. The priest and historian of French Canada made it his life’s work to advance a story of heroic francophone survival in the face of British conquest and assimilation’s insidious pull.

Young François’s upbringing in the Montreal suburb of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue did nothing to disabuse him of the belief that the Québécois had a distinct destiny.

Born in 1957, his boyhood snowball fights were with neighbouring anglo kids, he writes in his 2013 autobiography.

When the 16-year-old was setting off for CEGEP – the province’s new secular college system – he petitioned unsuccessfully to have a French-language institution opened on Montreal’s heavily anglophone West Island. In the end, he was forced to ride the commuter train to school, but got his revenge by provocatively thumbing through the separatist newspaper Le Jour while surrounded by readers of The Gazette.

Times were changing fast, for the future premier and the province: When the Parti Québécois was elected in 1976, a few months after Mr. Legault’s 19th birthday, they promptly brought in legislation requiring businesses to allow employees to work in French, opening a range of careers to francophones who had been largely unable to climb the English corporate ladder.

After graduating from the prestigious HEC business school, Mr. Legault went to work for the accounting firm Clarkson Gordon, epitome of Canada’s WASP establishment. The province was witnessing the growth of a parallel, French-speaking business firmament, led by entrepreneurs and buttressed by the state in the form of investments by government and public pension funds, which would eventually be known as Quebec Inc. It was in this world that Mr. Legault made his mark.

Air Transat's Philippe Sureau and Jean-Marc Eustache leave the airline's annual general meeting in Toronto in 2007.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

While working for the struggling airline Quebecair in the mid-1980s, he met two other hard-driving young businessmen and decided to start the company that would become Air Transat. The partners were impressed by Mr. Legault’s facility with numbers – “He was a boy who could count,” said Philippe Sureau, one of the co-founders – and by his cocksure ambition.

In the era before Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when the province rapidly modernized, there was an expression to describe a certain instinctive francophone humility: né pour un petit pain. Born to be a small fry, essentially. “He wasn’t that,” said Mr. Legault’s former colleague. “He thought he was a winner.”

Transat would grow to be a winner, too, thanks to a leg up from the Quebec state, and the massive quasi-governmental apparatus it had erected since the 1960s to help local business. The company first went public with the help of a program designed by PQ finance minister Jacques Parizeau that let taxpayers deduct the cost of buying shares in homegrown companies.

In the rocky early days, a $4-million investment from a massive capital pool created by the province’s biggest labour group and the provincial government in the early 1980s kept Transat liquid.

When the company was targeted by a hostile takeover attempt in the 1990s, it was the Caisse de dépôt et placement, a public pension fund and a key private equity backer for Quebec Inc., that helped design a poison-pill defence.

Despite his conservative leanings in other areas, Mr. Legault has often praised Quebec’s economic model, which prioritizes strong safety-net programs, such as universal daycare and prescription drug insurance, along with heavy state investment in the economy. No wonder he feels that way: From the CEGEP system to language laws to corporate aid, the Quebec government made Mr. Legault who he is.

Mr. Legault waits in line with his wife, Isabelle Brais, at the polls in L'Assomption on Sept. 25. Twenty-five years earlier, Mr. Legault's exit from Air Transat made them wealthy and allowed them to buy a large Montreal mansion.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

In 1997, Mr. Legault abruptly quit Air Transat and sold off his shares, after a disagreement with his other co-founder, Jean-Marc Eustache, over expansion plans in France. The postmaster’s son was now a wealthy man, and he started to live like it. He and his wife, Isabelle Brais, bought an eight-bedroom mansion in Outremont. He skied, played tennis, and became a bit of a wine connoisseur.

That life of ease made an awkward fit in an unsettled Quebec. The province had narrowly voted No in the independence referendum of 1995, and a PQ government led by Yes leader Lucien Bouchard presided over a reeling economy and embittered body politic.

At least since scandalizing the anglo salarymen with his choice of commuter-train newspaper, Mr. Legault had been drawn to the sovereigntist movement. He held his convictions close to his chest while running Transat – Mr. Sureau says he had no idea how Mr. Legault voted in their years working together – but when politics came calling, there was no question of whose colours he would wear.

The call finally came from Bouchard adviser Jean-François Lisée, who was hunting for business-minded candidates to bolster the party’s economic credentials in the coming election.

Mr. Legault may have been a sober-sided corporate accountant, but when it came time to win a seat in the fall 1998 campaign, he was also happy to fuel the fire of linguistic tension. During a speech to his riding association, attended by the former journalist and onetime federal Commissioner of Official Languages Graham Fraser, the future Premier told the audience that he had grown up surrounded by anglophones in Montreal’s West Island, “and I hate them as much as you do.”

“Here was a millionaire business executive speaking to a rural and small-town audience and saying, rather awkwardly, ‘Hey I’m just like you,’ ” Mr. Fraser recalled recently. (A spokesperson said Mr. Legault remembers talking about a rivalry between English- and French-speaking hockey teams in his hometown, adding that in Mr. Legault’s youth it was almost impossible to be served in French at the local mall.)

The boy who could count was not intimidated by the financial consequences of Quebec independence, as some of his comrades were. He authored a prospective Year One budget for a sovereign Quebec, and was impatient for a third referendum, according to several former colleagues.

He was also impatient for power. When Lucien Bouchard resigned as premier in 2001, Mr. Legault, then education minister, was regarded within the Parti Québécois government as a “solid second-line player,” Mr. Lisée said. That didn’t stop him from seriously considering a bid for leader. The night of Mr. Bouchard’s resignation, Mr. Legault rented an entire restaurant on the Grande Allée in Quebec City to discuss his chances, said Pascal Bérubé, a PQ member of the National Assembly who was then on Mr. Legault’s staff.

Premier Lucien Bouchard wipes away tears before his resignation speech in Quebec City in 2001.Didier Debusschere/Reuters

In his pursuit of power, Mr. Legault was highly sensitive to critical media coverage, often charting his course according to the headlines of the day, said Mr. Bédard, who recently wrote an essay for l’Inconvénient magazine about his time working with Mr. Legault.

A common-enough story in politics, maybe, but Mr. Legault was motivated to placate the press in part by his self-conception as a “pragmatist” who disdained abstract ideas and could find a grand synthesis to any problem.

One recurring issue that Mr. Legault dismissed on those grounds was the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities. Some parties, notably the conservative Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), won support by calling for restrictions on religious practices in the name of secularism.

At the time, Mr. Legault took little interest in the subject. His obsession in politics, he has often said, is to see Quebec close its wealth gap with Ontario. He seemed to feel “contempt” for the more romantic kind of nationalists who fought for ethereal Quebec values, said Mr. Bédard. “For him, it was almost a nationalism of losers – of lamentation.”

Increasingly, the Parti Québécois also seemed to be a party of losers. By 2009, it had been in opposition for six years. In June of that year, he resigned from the National Assembly and began his second short-lived retirement.

CAQ supporters celebrate in Quebec City on Oct. 1, 2018, the election night that brought Mr. Legault to the premiership. He had run twice before as CAQ leader before that, in 2012 and 2014.Chris Wattie/Reuters

Of course, the politics bug hadn’t left his system yet. One of the people he asked for advice was the political scientist and former president of the ADQ, Guy Laforest. The academic offered a little lesson in Quebec’s political history, doubling as a cautionary tale.

Despite their ups and downs, the Liberals had been the province’s dominant party for a century, he said. Two new parties had sprung up to challenge their hegemony in that time: Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale in the 1930s and René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois in the 1960s.

As Mr. Laforest saw it, those parties had succeeded by presenting themselves as defenders of Quebec identity and thus dominating the traditional bleu side of the spectrum. His own upstart ADQ had erred by trying to defeat the Liberals on economic grounds first, where the rouge side was seen as stronger. “What I told him is that, if there’s one thing to learn from the history of the ADQ, it was to implant yourself in the nationalist, autonomist terrain,” said Mr. Laforest.

It was unintuitive advice for a hard-headed businessman who found the province’s fiery conversation about religion and immigration tedious, if not distasteful. Nevertheless, Mr. Legault would eventually heed that advice.

In his first two elections as leader of the CAQ, in 2012 and 2014, Mr. Legault presented the party as an alternative to the old trench warfare of sovereigntist against federalist, and vowed to focus on making Quebec more prosperous with bread-and-butter policies. His 2013 autobiography, Cap sur un Québec gagnant (On course for a winning Quebec), laid out a plan to make the province an export-driven innovation economy. Identity issues took a back seat – and Mr. Legault watched as the Liberals and PQ traded power again, as they had since the 1970s.

People protest against Bill 21 outside Mr. Legault's Montreal office in 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

2018 would be different. The CAQ made a decisive bid for the conservative, nationalist bleu vote, proposing lower levels of immigration and a Quebec “values” tests for newcomers – and won a majority. Mr. Legault would not waste this crack at real, national power.

His first major piece of legislation, Bill 21, tackled a subject he had expressed contempt for just a few short years earlier. It bans civil servants in positions of “coercive” authority, such as teachers and police officers, from wearing visible religious symbols.

Those who had worked with Mr. Legault in his earlier incarnation as a managerial numbers-cruncher were puzzled. “Either he was converted,” said Mr. Bédard, “or there was a bit of opportunism.”

Passing a law about the religious attire of individuals may have been a strategic manoeuvre by Mr. Legault. But it was permitted by a political culture that gives Quebec governments wider latitude to legislate on areas of life considered sacrosanct in other parts of the country.

The francophone sense of embattlement in North America produces a tendency to see the state as a natural protector of the French language and a certain idea of Quebec culture, said Francine Pelletier, a filmmaker and political analyst.

“We defend the Gaulois village.“

Mr. Legault gets a COVID-19 booster from Kenza Kias in Montreal this past August.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The pandemic swallowed the rest of Mr. Legault’s policy agenda for the next two years, but brought the province into intimate contact with Legault the man – and Quebec liked what it saw.

The Premier’s plain way of speaking and reassuring manner were piped into millions of living rooms daily during COVID-19 briefings, and no amount of horrifying news could dampen viewers’ affection for the deep voice and furrowed brow delivering it. An extraordinary 94 per cent of Quebeckers said they were satisfied with his performance in one March, 2020, Leger poll.

The heights of his popularity were all the more striking because of the unusual burdens Mr. Legault placed on Quebeckers in the name of public health. Twice he imposed a nighttime curfew that had no parallel in Canada, and for months at a time in the lockdown winters, it was illegal for most people to enter another person’s home.

With political capital to burn and the opposition splintered between four viable parties, Mr. Legault could do just about anything he wanted. Rather than turning to his long-cherished project of unleashing Quebec’s economic animal spirits, however, the Premier embraced another identity issue, this one closer to his heart.

People take part in an anti-Bill-96 protest in Montreal this past May.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Bill 96, passed this spring, is designed to strengthen the place of French in Quebec by limiting the use of English in medium-sized businesses, the courts, colleges, and the delivery of government services. Again, from a political perspective, Mr. Legault’s issue was well-chosen. Not only did the framing reprise his childhood snowball fights with anglophones, it responded to the belief among 75 per cent of francophones that French is in danger, said Mario Polèse, professor emeritus at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

The rise of English as the global lingua franca – which Quebeckers confront every time they fire up YouTube or Netflix – has helped revive perennial anxiety about the viability of a small French-speaking society in a vast English-speaking continent. So has the cold, hard data from Statistics Canada, released on the eve of the election campaign, showing the share of francophones gradually declining in Quebec.

He may have set aside the dream of sovereignty, but Mr. Legault has no particular love for Canada. When asked about the possibility of an independence referendum last year, he simply said there is no path to victory. When prodded to say what he appreciates about the country, he once responded: equalization payments, some social programs and a few good hockey teams.

Ever the skillful marketer, Mr. Legault has steered the province toward a position it finds comfortable: turned inward, within Canada, defended by a strong, paternal state.

“Quebeckers are fine being between the two chairs,” said Jean-François Lisée, the former Bouchard adviser (and later Parti Québécois leader).

“The PQ always tries to pull them onto the Quebec chair, the Liberals always try to pull them onto the Canada chair. He says, ‘No, you’re fine right here!’ Quebeckers say, ‘Finally someone understands me!’ ”

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