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Duceppe celebrating 10th anniversary at helm of Bloc Quebecois

English Canada's enduring image of Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe is of him wearing a hairnet in a cheese factory in the 1997 election campaign.

At the time, Mr. Duceppe was viewed as an inexperienced leader who didn't inspire much confidence. That image also didn't escape the sharp pens of Quebec editorial cartoonists.

Ten years later, Mr. Duceppe is celebrating a decade as leader of the separatist party and is firmly installed as its leader.

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"It has left its mark," Mr. Duceppe said of the infamous hairnet photo.

"People were saying he will not be able to get over that; it's impossible to make a second first impression," the Bloc leader said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

But through discipline, perseverance and hard work, Mr. Duceppe has grown into his job and commands respect of the party co-founded in 1990 by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard.

Mr. Duceppe became leader of the Bloc on March 15, 1997. He's a former Marxist-Leninist and Maoist, hospital orderly and trade-union negotiator. He is also the son of the late Jean Duceppe, a well-known Quebec actor.

One of the things Mr. Duceppe is most proud of is surviving his first year on the job and the "terrible" 1997 election campaign, in which the Bloc lost its status as official Opposition after four years.

Mr. Duceppe noted that others may have quit and he gives himself a tip of the hat.

"I had the necessary tenacity because I had beliefs and willpower," said the 59-year-old.

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"I said to myself: 'No, it's not true. I won't give up. It was hard but it's in situations like these that you get stronger."

He has come a long way. In 2005, Mr. Duceppe was touted as a possible leader of the Parti Quebecois when Bernard Landry suddenly resigned but he decided to stay with the Bloc in the House of Commons.

Political scientist Jean-Herman Guay said the next federal election will be decisive for Mr. Duceppe. The Bloc won 51 seats in 2006.

"The sponsorship scandal brought them back to life, it was a lifesaver," said Mr. Guay, who teaches at the University of Sherbrooke.

"But now that the Liberals have been punished and the Conservatives are in power, the challenge of persistence has resurfaced. And if the Parti Quebecois were to take a thrashing in the March 26 provincial election, the Bloc would inherit that situation."

Mr. Duceppe doesn't inspire like Mr. Bouchard or late PQ premier Rene Levesque, Mr. Guay said.

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"He's a grinder, a man who knows his files," Mr. Guay said of Mr. Duceppe.

But Bloc MP Louis Plamondon said although Mr. Duceppe's leadership style, sometimes viewed as intransigent, hasn't always been appreciated within the Bloc, he's in control and the party is respected by its opponents.

It now would be difficult to replace him, Mr. Plamondon conceded.

"It would be a heavy, a very heavy loss, and the candidates who would like to succeed him would need a few months to show they would be capable of taking over," Mr. Plamondon said.

Mr. Duceppe doesn't seem at all worried about the Bloc's future.

"Since 1990, the Bloc's future has been called into question. There are doomsayers who announce every six months that the Bloc will disappear. I've seen better prophets in the history of mankind."

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