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quebec election

Coalition Avenir Qubec leader Francois Legault speaks with supporters while campaigning Monday, August 27, 2012 in Boucherville, Que.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

For a man vying to become the next premier of Quebec, François Legault is not afraid of making enemies. The number of people the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec's Future) has denigrated in his bid to shake up the province is longer than a doctor's waiting list.

As part of his own not-so-quiet revolution, the 55-year-old politician has belittled youth for lacking a work ethic, family doctors for not taking enough patients, Hydro-Québec for overstaffing, superfluous school boards and powerful union leaders he accuses of caring only to maintain the status quo.

"I am ready to assume the political costs," Mr. Legault says, hoping his bluntness will ring true and seduce Quebeckers.

It is a risky bet, but Gisèle Coulombe is ready to give him a chance. In a family restaurant in Montmagny, a rural town on the south shore of Quebec City, the stay-at-home mom works her way through bodyguards, political advisers and journalists to shake Mr. Legault's hand. "I hope that you will win and start the big clean up," she says.

Yet many Quebeckers remain skeptical toward the CAQ, the nine-month-old party that has become an unavoidable force in Quebec as it stands a close second to the Parti Québécois in the polls. Mr. Legault is not the first politician to promise the moon. And the former airline executive has been known to change his mind, to quit and to break with the past.

His latest about-face is his most spectacular: In any third referendum on independence, the former hardline separatist now says he would vote No, baffling partisans on both sides.

Can Mr. Legault be trusted? Or will he bail when the going gets tough, as his bold reforms are met by confrontation?

Liberal Premier Jean Charest and PQ Leader Pauline Marois have been pouncing on this apparent character weakness for the past two weeks, as the CAQ is the only party that has been rising consistently in the polls. With his keen political sense, Mr. Charest was the first to label Mr. Legault as "pas fiable" – unreliable – because of his outlandish electoral promises, such as cutting middle-class taxes to the eventual tune of $1.8-billion in revenue a year.

Ms. Marois picked up the "pas fiable" attacks. But for her, it's personal. She cannot forget Mr. Legault's decision to abandon her, the PQ and its dream of independence. For many Péquistes, this departure is nothing short of treason.

François Legault did not seem destined for politics, even though he idolized René Lévesque as a teenager. This son of a postmaster grew up in a modest family in Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue, a borough on Montreal's West Island. Thanks to loans and bursaries, he studied accounting and finance at HEC Montreal, where he earned an MBA.

The young accountant worked for Ernst & Young for six years before jumping to Nationair, where he managed the finances of the small airline. At 29, he decided to fly solo. With partners Jean-Marc Eustache, Philippe Sureau and Lina De Cesare, he launched Transat, a vacation-package specialist with its own airline.

"He is a true self-made man," says his closest political adviser, Martin Koskinen.

The start-up company quickly went to the stock market and turned out to be a resounding success. But in March of 1997, Mr. Legault took everyone by surprise by resigning and selling all of his shares, citing irreconcilable differences with the chief executive officer, Mr. Eustache. The two men have not spoken since, Mr. Legault confessed in 2011, while Mr. Eustache refuses adamantly to discuss the departure of his former partner, whose name does not even appear in the company history on Transat's website.

This was the first of Mr. Legault's dramatic surprises. In 1998, the young millionaire was appointed industry minister under Lucien Bouchard three months before he even stood for election, so pleased was the PQ premier to attract a star business candidate, a rarity for the party.

After Mr. Legault finally was elected that November in the riding of Rousseau, in the Lanaudière region northeast of Montreal, Mr. Bouchard gave him the education portfolio. He didn't love it at first, but grew passionate about it – today, the CAQ leader's first priority is to fight the province's alarming dropout rate.

However, Mr. Legault provoked another crisis at the beginning of 2001. He threatened to quit over the $400-million he had promised to universities but could no longer deliver after a lost budget battle. Mr. Bouchard had to fly back from Europe to quell the crisis within his cabinet, where many thought that Mr. Legault had violated sacred ministerial solidarity.

"It gave me the impression that he wanted to win the youth vote to further his personal ambitions," says former premier Bernard Landry, who was then finance minister.

When Mr. Landry resigned as PQ leader in June of 2005 after his defeat by Mr. Charest in the 2003 general elections, many of the youth leaders who gravitate around Mr. Legault, such as François Rebello (now a CAQ candidate), pressed him to run. But at the last minute, he left them in the lurch.

"It really was for personal reasons," Mr. Koskinen insists. One of Mr. Legault's two sons – now teenagers – was having difficulties, and his wife, Isabelle, gave him an ultimatum: It's the leadership race or us.

But nothing compares to the letdown PQ members felt when Mr. Legault left the party in June of 2009 – to launch another party less then two years later with Charles Sirois, a businessman with unimpeachable federalist credentials. This uncommon partnership led to the creation of a platform that pledges a 10-year truce on the sovereignty debate.

"In my cabinet, he was the most fiery sovereigntist. He was asking me to hold a referendum every week!" says Mr. Landry, who is still "astounded" by Mr. Legault's about-face.

But Mr. Koskinen says Mr. Legault's former PQ colleagues have a selective memory. When André Boisclair campaigned heavily on sovereignty in 2007, presenting it as the cure to all of Quebec's ills, the PQ had its poorest showing in the popular vote since 1973 – it finished third and lost its official opposition status.

The accountant drew the obvious conclusions, his close adviser says. "From then on, his thinking evolved," Mr. Koskinen says. "And he expressed his thoughts quite publicly. To say that he abruptly changed is a show of bad faith."

During a press conference on Thursday in the Beauce region, Mr. Legault sliced the air with his hands as he rebutted his rivals' claims that he can't be trusted.

"I have spent 10 years at Transat, 10 years with the Parti Québécois, and I have committed to spending the next 10 years with the Coalition. I have been with Isabelle for 22 years," he added, hugging his wife, who has been campaigning at his side, a novelty for the normally reserved Outremont shop owner. "I have no lessons to take from anyone on consistency."

But Mr. Legault's platform is a bit of all things to everyone. He wants a smaller government à la Stephen Harper, yet he promotes an economic interventionism that would use the province's investment arms to protect Quebec's business champions from foreign takeovers. He calls himself a pragmatist, yet his prescription for the province's health-care woes – a family doctor for everyone within a year – has got eyes rolling throughout Quebec.

So has his plan to eliminate 4,000 jobs at Hydro-Québec to pay for his electoral promises, as it is unlikely that voluntary departures would suffice, assuring a head-on fight with its powerhouse union.

Whether Quebeckers can trust Mr. Legault or not, however, other Canadians definitely cannot count on him to defend the country. The CAQ leader is adamant: He will neither promote sovereignty nor defend federalism.

"He has his moments of doubt," one of his senior staffers says, "but once he makes up his mind, it's do or die."

The CAQ has attracted the disaffected from both Liberals and Péquistes, and Mr. Legault has scrambled throughout the campaign to explain the practical implications of his position. But in Quebec, there is a sense that the coalition's starting point may be untenable.

If the PQ wins and decides to hold a referendum on independence, Mr. Legault says he will vote against it. But he refuses to say if he would lead or even join the "No" campaign. Whatever he does, it could break the CAQ – a party built on the premise that the last thing most Quebeckers want is another divisive sovereignty vote – into factions.

Mr. Legault has pegged his political fate to an unprecedented level of vagueness on the issue that has defined Quebec politics for four decades. "We are a coalition," he says. "You will not succeed in categorizing us, collectively or individually, in the sovereigntist or the federalist camp."

Roaming the province's restaurants and soccer fields, the businessman Mr. Legault has been selling his coalition like a salesman pushes a shiny new product. Give up the old quarrels for the sake of real reforms in education and health care, he has been pleading: "Try us !"

When votes are counted after Tuesday's hotly contested election, the results will be simple to analyze for Mr. Legault. Either Quebeckers trusted him, or they didn't buy into his coalition's grand ambitions and dishevelled construction.