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Quebec Liberal Party leadership candidate Philippe Couillard speaks to delegates Sunday, March 17, 2013 at the leadership convention in Montreal.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is being urged to apologize for comments she made blaming multiculturalism for social unrest and bombs in Britain.

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard says he was astonished when he read the remarks by Marois in a newspaper interview and asserts they are unworthy of a head of government.

"I almost could not believe it," an incredulous Couillard said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Friday. "I had to read it two or three times to be sure."

Marois told Le Devoir that England's multiculturalism policy had led to people beating each other up and setting off bombs.

While acknowledging France's efforts at secularism "are not perfect," she said it was preferable to the multiculturalism policies of practiced in England.

"In England, they're smashing each other in the face and throwing bombs because of multiculturalism and nobody knowing any more who they are in that society."

She made the remarks in an interview published Friday where she spoke about the proposed Charter of Quebec Values, preliminary details of which are expected to be released next week.

Elements leaked to the media suggest people working in the public service could be banned from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab.

Marois said she could phase her charter in slowly, and did not rule out exempting certain institutions like universities and hospitals. The government is expected to release a discussion paper next week, which would be a precursor to legislation.

That suggests the issue could be dragged out beyond the life of the PQ minority government – and used as an issue in an election campaign.

But Couillard said Marois' comments are unacceptable for someone who leads a government and who is supposed to unite people.

"To link or associate multiculturalism with violence, particularly interracial violence – I think she should immediately rectify or apologize because this is a very serious way to talk about the communities," Couillard said.

"It's terrible to say things like that."

The need to overhaul immigration-integration policies are also a matter of debate.

The global Migrant Integration Policy Index suggests the U.K. has actually been mildly more successful than France at integrating immigrants – and that Canada has been far more successful than either.

Its latest study places Canada at No. 3 in the world, after Sweden and Portugal. That is vastly ahead of Britain and France, which are fairly close in ranking. The index, which is produced by think tanks, research institutes and non-government organizations in Britain, tracks integration from 31 offices across Europe, Canada and the United States.

Marois, who attended a funding announcement near Montreal on Friday, declined to take questions from reporters on her comments or on any other topics.

She told one reporter that he was exhibiting "strange behaviour" for continuing to ask questions as she walked away.

Marois' charter proposal has majority public support, according to opinion polls, however it has drawn some criticism from commentators normally friendly to the PQ.

Former Bloc Quebecois federal MP Raymond Gravel, who is also a priest, described the idea in an open letter as "worthy of a dictatorship."

One column in Le Devoir newspaper suggested that the PQ might make some short-term electoral gains at the expense of its long-term strategic goal: convincing Quebec immigrants to support independence.

It suggested that because demographic growth in the province will come from minorities, and that many of those newcomers are arriving from French-speaking Muslim North Africa, it would be suicidal for the PQ to alienate them.

"Of course, if the PQ has stopped caring about trying to achieve independence," Michel David wrote, "that's a whole other story."

The Liberals, meanwhile, have argued that the PQ is dragging out this hot-button debate to distract from an issue more Quebeckers might care about: a lagging economy.

In fact, politicians outside Quebec have tied the charter issue to the economy as well. The Premier of Ontario and mayor of Calgary have essentially invited minority workers, like doctors, upset at the PQ policy to move to their jurisdictions.

Some members of cultural communities, quoted in Quebec media reports, have said that's exactly what they would do if the charter is introduced as it was described in the leaked draft.

The province has already seen its demographic clout shrink within Canada in recent decades as Quebec retains a smaller share of immigrants than some other provinces.