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An assistant to Jean-François Lisée holds up Mr. Lisée’s nomination signatures just before the former Parti Québécois leadership candidate announced his withdrawal from the race on Friday.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The one Parti Québécois leadership candidate who appeared unafraid to confront front-runner Pierre Karl Péladeau is stepping out of the race, citing the insurmountable odds of anyone defeating the business titan.

Jean-François Lisée, the journalist and onetime adviser to former premier Jacques Parizeau, abandoned his campaign for the party leadership Friday afternoon. "Politically, the race is over … Pierre Karl has won," Mr. Lisée said. "It's not our choice but it's clear the party wants its Pierre Karl Péladeau moment. We have to respect that."

Mr. Lisée's departure comes as the PQ appears headed toward a coronation of Mr. Péladeau, a neophyte politician who has been in constant controversy for everything from publicly dressing down a reporter who called his cellphone, to allegations of conflict of interest over his dual roles as politician and the province's biggest media owner.

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Polls have showed Mr. Péladeau running far ahead of all rivals, who have mostly walked on eggshells to avoid being too critical of the powerful businessman. Conversely, Mr. Lisée broke from party ranks to criticize Mr. Péladeau in October, saying his ownership of Quebecor Inc. was a "ticking timebomb" for the party. He urged Mr. Péladeau to put his shares in a blind trust. Mr. Péladeau refused. The other leadership candidates called for calm.

Mr. Lisée also compared Mr. Péladeau's popular support to that of André Boisclair, who rode to the PQ leadership on a wave of popularity in 2005 and flamed out 18 months later.

It appears Mr. Lisée has become an outcast in his party. He's had a hard time raising funds and collecting the 2,000 signatures required to run. He said sticking around to poke more holes in Mr. Péladeau's candidacy would accomplish nothing. "A negative campaign would be counterproductive to our movement," Mr. Lisée said.

Amid jockeying in the leadership race, the PQ is again trying to stoke angst in the province over identity, specifically over the Liberal government's unwillingness to use legislation to crack down on a perceived threat of Islam to security and secularity in the province. The debate reached a fever pitch in 2013 when the PQ was in power and has revived again in recent weeks.

Bernard Drainville, the original architect of the failed charter that would have enshrined secular values in Quebec law along with a ban on religious symbols among public service workers, introduced a "Charter 2.0" as part of his leadership bid earlier this month.

Mr. Drainville officially entered the race Friday but his announcement was overshadowed by Mr. Lisée's withdrawal. The race for the May leadership vote now has five likely candidates.

The values debate reached a new low Thursday when PQ interim leader Stéphane Bédard and several leadership candidates ominously accused Premier Philippe Couillard of falling under the sway of Muslim fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Couillard worked in the country from 1992 to 1996 before embarking on a political career.

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Mr. Bédard even went so far as to plead with Mr. Couillard not to "import" those values to Quebec. One radio host added fuel to the incendiary day, comparing Mr. Couillard's time working for the rights-abusing Saudi regime to working for the Third Reich.

Cooler heads prevailed somewhat Friday, with a series of half-apologies and partial walk-backs from the Saudi conspiracy theorists. PQ leadership hopeful Alexandre Cloutier, who said Mr. Couillard is steeped in Saudi values, said he got carried away out of frustration. Mr. Couillard and his Liberals have shown little interest in passing a law on secularism, preferring to let problems be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

"We're suffering from a certain amount of exasperation because we want the Premier to act," Mr. Cloutier told a Montreal radio station. "We have to stay a bit above the fray somewhat and avoid contributing tears to the fabric of our society over an issue that's this sensitive."

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