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Bloc Quebecois MP Maria Mourani holds a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday February 16, 2011.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

The debate over a Parti Québécois plan to restrict religious expression in the Quebec public service hardened substantially with the expulsion of the lone female, visible-minority MP from the shrivelled ranks of the separatist Bloc Québécois.

Maria Mourani, who until Thursday was one of five Bloc MPs, fell out of line with sovereigntist leadership this week when she sharply criticized the provincial plan to severely limit the wearing of religious symbols by public employees.

Quebec's roiling debate over the plan to eliminate the Muslim hijab, the Sikh turban and other religious garments and symbols from workers on the public payroll took several twists as camps hardened, protests were planned, and speculation mounted in Liberal and media ranks that it all may lead to an election in the late fall.

PQ Premier Pauline Marois, who leads a fragile minority government, said France is a model of integration. "The most beautiful example is France, which has a very impressive number of people [from North Africa] and has found a space to live well with immigrants from other regions," she said in Terrebonne, a suburb near Montreal.

Critics scoffed at Ms. Marois's comparison to the French model, pointing out the country is riven with riots in its Muslim suburbs. And France's secularism was first aimed decades ago at eradicating Catholic symbols from the state, long before it was used to limit religious expression by Muslim newcomers. The PQ plan instead creates Catholic exceptions.

Ms. Mourani, a Catholic of Lebanese origin who often wears a small visible crucifix that would be allowed under the PQ plan, described the proposed Charter of Quebec Values as discriminatory, likely illegal under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and strategically disastrous for the independence movement that has failed to make inroads with growing immigrant communities.

She even noted Quebeckers would have to look to Canada and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms for protection – a heresy among her pro-independence allies.

It was too much for Bloc Leader Daniel Paillé, whose party has taken a hardline stance alongside the PQ after wavering in initial reaction earlier this week on the PQ charter. He said differences with Ms. Mourani became irreconcilable when she alluded to the charter as a sign of a PQ turn toward ethnic nationalism.

Julie Scheinck, a member of the Bloc executive in the Jonquière riding, then quit in protest over Ms. Mourani's expulsion.

A street protest is planned for Saturday in Montreal, but it too has seen internal divisions. Members of the Jewish community will be absent, given the protest is on the Sabbath and the Yom Kippur holiday. One of the protest leaders is Adil Charkaoui, a man who spent six years in jail under suspicion of being an al-Qaida agent. A judge ordered his release in 2010.

Ms. Mourani was hailed among Muslims in her community of Ahuntsic, a diverse Montreal neighbourhood. Carmen Chouinard, who sits on the executive of the Centre Islamique Libanais, said the charter "is the fear of every Muslim, put on paper."

Ms. Chouinard, a 55-year-old from eastern Quebec who converted to Islam 13 years ago, said she has voted Parti Québécois since 1976, but changed her vote in the 2012 election when the PQ plan was a plank in the party platform. "If this is the way the PQ conceives Quebec, I'd rather be Canadian," she said.

With the PQ in charge of a minority government that has just completed its first year, the outlines of the next election campaign are already shaping up.

While Ms. Marois has staked out the identity turf, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard tried to drag the conversation back to the economy.

Quebec's projected deficit has grown steadily and the economy has shown signs of weakening. The economy is a traditional area of strength for the Liberals. But even as he tried to offer an economic critique, Mr. Couillard had pointed words on Ms. Mourani's exit.

"There's a new kind of absolutism, a kind of fundamentalism in the PQ," Mr. Couillard said. "And Ms. Mourani just got excommunicated."

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