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In more serene times, when he was a precocious cabinet minister rather than Quebec's best-known cocaine sniffer, André Boisclair gave a newspaper interview in which he got to demonstrate his wits in a game of free association.

If he were a piece of furniture, what kind would he be? A table, he replied, so he could draw people around him. If he were a city, what city would he be? Barcelona, he replied, waxing about its beauty.

Then, the paper asked, if he was a drug, what would it be? "If I had to be addicted to anything, it would be peace," he answered.

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Today, in the final moments of a venomous leadership campaign, the front-running candidate to be the next Parti Québécois leader must be yearning for a good dose of peace.

Peace is hard to come by these days in the PQ, where the race to become the next head of the sovereigntist movement has soared to unprecedented levels of acrimony.

Clad in the well-tailored suits of the chic designer Philippe Dubuc, Mr. Boisclair is a toothy 39-year-old with cooler credentials than previous generations of combed-over PQ politicians.

To a calcifying party, he brings hopes of renewal and fresh blood, a telegenic figure who assiduously courts minorities and moderates.

But the more old-fashioned Péquistes and some younger restless tenants of independence are wary of him, seeing him as a smooth-talking neo-Liberal with a tepid commitment to sovereignty and a tin ear for their social-democratic ideals.

And because of his admission that he took cocaine as late as 1998, two years after he had become a cabinet minister, many fear that their Liberal rivals have found some other skeletons in Mr. Boisclair's closet.

The drug issue has erupted into a full-scale war in the party.

"He poses a risk to achieving sovereignty," said his main leadership rival, Pauline Marois.

"The members are entitled to know everything at a time when they must make a decision," said another prominent candidate, Richard Legendre.

Mr. Boisclair remains undeterred. He has nurtured an impressive network of supporters as part of his long-cherished dream to become premier. ("I have the ambition to be premier," he had said as early as January of 2001).

And he is gambling that the nearly 140,000 party members will be forgiving enough when they choose a new leader in a telephone vote Sunday to Tuesday.

Mr. Boisclair is popular among young people and his followers boast that he can inject an influx of fresh supporters into a now-stodgy PQ. One of the first celebrities to urge him to run was the Haitian-born singer Luck Mervil, giving Mr. Boisclair an extra sheen of hipness.

But political insiders see Mr. Boisclair as a haughty upstart with a slim record of achievements. Journalists in Quebec City noted occasions when, as he left an event, he would lift his arms, expecting an aide to help him don his coat.

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He acknowledges that he was immodest in his first years in politics, but insists he has learned the virtues of humility, partly with the help of a psychoanalyst.

Mr. Boisclair grew up in Outremont, the leafy, affluent enclave that is home to Montreal's francophone elite. His father, Marc-André, was a real-estate developer who, Mr. Boisclair likes to tell reporters, had his career ups and downs.

Mr. Boisclair attended the exclusive Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, whose alumni include Pierre Trudeau. There, the young man known as "Dédé" befriended future decision-makers on both sides of Quebec's political divide. His circle of friends included federalists such as Marc-André Blanchard, a future president of the provincial Liberal Party, and Paul Lalonde, son of the Trudeau-era federal minister Marc Lalonde.

"I had no clear indication at the time that he was a sovereigntist and it even surprised me when he entered politics for the PQ," Paul Lalonde recalled.

In fact, belying the cliché of the rebellious, pro-independence Quebec teenagers, Mr. Boisclair was 14 and a federalist during the 1980 referendum.

He later said he would have voted No in 1980 had he been old enough to cast a ballot.

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Mr. Boisclair, now the pretty boy of Quebec politics, hadn't grown yet into his looks when they were classmates, Mr. Lalonde said. "It's only now that the sex appeal has become part of his public persona."

Mr. Boisclair said he experienced his sovereigntist epiphany while travelling in eastern Quebec. He was 19 and after listening to a speech by Bernard Landry, he joined the PQ and went to work for Mr. Landry's unsuccessful 1985 leadership bid.

Four years later, having dropped out of pursuing a bachelor's degree in economics, he became the youngest sitting member in the Quebec National Assembly and his moderate views on sovereignty quickly became a handicap in the midst of a surge in nationalism that followed the failed 1990 Meech Lake constitutional accord.

In 1993, Mr. Boisclair criticized the PQ as being "fundamentalist" for failing to attract support among ethnic communities and for promoting outright political independence for Quebec.

For someone with a reputation for political flair, Mr. Boisclair had rubbed his leader, Jacques Parizeau, the wrong way. As far as he was concerned, Mr. Parizeau snapped back, "that young Boisclair no longer exists."

The promising backbencher was left in the political doghouse and a cabinet job opened for him only with the arrival of Lucien Bouchard as leader in 1996.

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Mr. Boisclair became the most ardent defender of Mr. Bouchard's conservative fiscal policies and shared his vision of a new political deal between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

"If I could be Canadian like the French are European, tomorrow I would sign [such a deal] he said at the time.

As minister of social solidarity in 1998, Mr. Boisclair tackled the issue of government spending cuts with the ruthlessness of an entrepreneur.

One controversial instance occurred with the demutualization of the Canadian insurance industry, the process where life insurers converted from mutual enterprises owned by their policy holders to publicly traded companies owned by shareholders.

Welfare recipients who were policy owners became eligible to receive shares worth thousands of dollars.

Mr. Boisclair's department was criticized for making no efforts to explain to welfare recipients that their new assets had to be declared and that they would lose their benefits and have their money seized by the government.

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In one high-profile case, a single mother of two who got off welfare and opened a hair salon was left on the brink of bankruptcy after the government insisted she reimburse back taxes. That move and other cost-cutting initiatives angered anti-poverty groups that were lobbying the government for concrete steps to help the poor.

"[Mr. Boisclair]wasn't very receptive to our concerns," social activist Vivian Labrie recalled.

When Mr. Landry became leader, Mr. Boisclair rose quickly through the ranks, holding simultaneously the environment and municipal affairs portfolios while being House leader.

Only months into his first cabinet job, opposition members were criticizing Mr. Boisclair's hefty expense account. Few knew at the time he had taken cocaine and that his chief of staff, Luc Doray, had become a cocaine addict.

Mr. Doray has since pleaded guilty to embezzling $30,000 from the government to feed his habit. Mr. Doray, who was caught by a routine audit, admitted to claiming false travel and lodging expenses and falsifying restaurant bills.

On some of those restaurant outings, it was Mr. Boisclair who authorized Mr. Doray to pick up the tab, the court heard.

However, it was Mr. Doray who forged the receipts to inflate his expense claims.

So far in the leadership campaign, his sexual orientation has never openly been an issue. But Mr. Boisclair remains plagued by rumours about having an unruly lifestyle.

He is no longer reluctant to say that he is gay. However, to the alternative weekly Voir, which asked why he didn't embrace a more militant style, he famously replied that, "I draw no pride from my sexual orientation."

Nor does he draw pride from his cocaine use, acknowledging only minimal details and painting himself as a victim of media harassment.

He was stumped when a TV anchor asked him what message his drug use would send to parents trying to raise children. "What do you want me to say?" he answered.

One experienced law-enforcement official noted in an interview that, at the retail level, cocaine users like Mr. Boisclair are unlikely to have had any direct contact with someone linked to organized crime.

However, Mr. Boisclair's attempts at playing down what happened and the period during which he concedes he used cocaine raised eyebrows.

"It's rather disturbing," the law-enforcement official said. "Nobody in our office thinks that cocaine consumption is banal."

Mr. Boisclair admits to having used cocaine up to 1997 or 1998, at a time when biker gangs in Quebec were in the midst of a brutal turf war for control of Montreal's multimillion-dollar illicit drug trade. An 11-year-old boy died in a car-bomb blast. Two prison guards were assassinated.

During that period, police and prosecutors were clamouring after politicians to give them better tools to curb the violence. In turn, the PQ cabinet, of which Mr. Boisclair was a member, was calling on Ottawa to adopt anti-gang laws.

All of this makes calls by many party members for greater transparency even more urgent. As the campaign enters a final decisive week, Mr. Boisclair faces a difficult choice that could make or break his leadership bid.

Former union leader Marc Laviolette, who directs a left-wing faction of labour and social activists in the PQ, says the mystery surrounding Mr. Boisclair's cocaine use jeopardizes the future of the party and Quebec sovereignty should he become leader.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire," Mr. Laviolette said in an interview.

"The Liberals are going to use it in an election campaign. That's why they are so quiet about it now. If I were a Liberal, I know I'd use it. They will use this issue and unleash everything they have to win an election and stop the holding of another referendum on sovereignty."

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