The Parti Québécois had probably expected its contentious secular charter to run into opposition from federalists, minorities and the party's usual political foes. But now the PQ is facing fire from a towering figure within its own ranks.
Former premier Jacques Parizeau went public on Thursday with a blunt repudiation of the charter of values that landed like a bombshell into an already volatile debate on religious freedoms.
"It goes too far," the Journal de Montréal said in summing up Mr. Parizeau's views in a screaming front-page headline. In an open letter inside the mass-circulation daily, Mr. Parizeau makes his case, which had been the object of speculation for weeks.
Mr. Parizeau, 83, has a tainted legacy when it comes to the sovereigntist movement's relations with ethnic minorities. But he is regarded as an elder in the PQ and perhaps the most influential living figure among devoted sovereigntists. On Thursday, PQ minister Jean-François Lisée, a former adviser to Mr. Parizeau who now sits on the opposite side of the charter issue from his onetime boss, acknowledged the former party leader's stature when he said Mr. Parizeau has been front and centre in every major debate in Quebec since the 1960s.
"It's a Quebec value" to hear from him, Mr. Lisée said as the government of Premier Pauline Marois scrambled to make the best of the embarrassing broadside. Mr. Parizeau's critique, written in a measured and professorial tone, is that Quebec eased into secularism gradually and without a crisis, and the Catholic religious garb that nuns and priests once wore was set aside without the state resorting to laws.
He attributed public support for the PQ's plan to ban religious headgear in the public service to fear of Islamic extremism.
"It's understandable," he wrote. "About the only contact most Quebeckers have with the Islamic world is through images of violence, repeated over and over: wars, riots, bombs, the attack on the World Trade Center and of the Boston Marathon," he wrote. "The reflex is obvious: We'll have none of that here!"
Yet Mr. Parizeau insists Quebeckers are neither "mean" nor "vindictive," and polls show that a strong majority opposes the notion of firing a woman over her headscarf.
He also parts ways with Ms. Marois on the crucifix in the National Assembly. Mr. Parizeau says it should come down; the PQ wants to maintain it in the name of Quebec's heritage.
Mr. Parizeau carries his own baggage when it comes to ethnic groups in Quebec. He is remembered for blaming "money and the ethnic vote" after the Yes side's razor-thin referendum loss in 1995.
Mr. Parizeau revisited the controversy on Thursday, telling radio-show host Paul Arcand he was referring to the "common front" of the Greek, Italian and Jewish congresses that campaigned for the No side. A dozen polling stations in the heavily Jewish district of Côte-Saint-Luc had not a single Yes ballot, he said.
In the same interview, he said immigrants came to Quebec to live in peace, and the PQ's proposal is starting to frighten them. And the ban on visible religious symbols would target only Muslim women, not men.
"What is circulating on social media is hardly reassuring for them," he wrote in his letter.
Mr. Parizeau is the most prominent but not the only sovereigntist to take aim at the Marois government over the charter. MP Maria Mourani quit the Bloc Québécois after being expelled from caucus for criticizing it. Former Bloc MP Jean Dorion has said the charter would sabotage relations with the sizable community of French-speaking immigrants from North Africa.
Mr. Parizeau's attack also contains a political warning. He notes that all federal parties staunchly support Quebec's minorities in the debate. "In effect, federalism is presented as their real defender," he said.
The PQ has shown no sign that the critiques – from Mr. Parizeau or anyone else – are making it reconsider. In fact, a newspaper reported on Thursday that the party is weighing removing the right to opt out of the charter from its original proposal.
Liberal House leader Jean-Marc Fournier said the PQ has made its religious-garb rules an electoral strategy and has no desire to seek a consensus despite the threat to social peace. "[The PQ] wants to pick at the sore because that's its electoral battleground."