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Charest vows to protect Rona as Quebec election looms

Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks at a rally in his riding of Sherbrooke, on July 31, 2012.

Christinne Muschi/REUTERS

Jean Charest is adopting the mantle of economic nationalism as he gambles on a summer election in the face of widespread attacks on his record after nine years in office.

The Quebec Liberal Leader is scheduled to launch an election Wednesday morning for a vote on Tuesday, Sept. 4, hoping for a fourth straight victory, something that has not happened since former premier Maurice Duplessis did it in 1956.

Mr. Charest is sending clear signals on the eve of the campaign that he wants to place economic issues at the heart of his platform. His government scrambled to put together a protectionist response to beat back the efforts of U.S. home-improvement giant Lowe's to take over the homegrown Rona Inc. in a $1.8-billion unsolicited bid.

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At the same time, the Liberals announced that the Minister of Natural Resources, Clément Gignac, is abandoning a safe seat on Montreal Island to run in a Parti Québécois stronghold in Quebec City. Mr. Gignac is insisting that Quebec's economic future lies in the exploitation of its natural resources, as called for in his government's Plan Nord.

The province's stand against the Rona takeover sets the stage for a unique and potentially rancorous battle between old-school Quebec nationalism and modern activist shareholders who are disappointed with Rona's financial performance.

Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand protectively described Rona as a "strategic interest" that should not slip into the hands of foreign owners, pointing to its many suppliers and widespread presence in the province.

Quebec's largest pension fund, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, also waved the nationalist flag for the first time in years, publicly voicing concerns about the takeover bid Tuesday and boosting its stake in Rona to 14.18 per cent from 12.18 per cent.

Mr. Bachand indicated that Quebec may buy Rona shares and get together with other shareholders to prevent Rona from falling into U.S. hands. The moves underline the extent to which the notion of Quebec Inc. – a kind of hybrid form of capitalism in which the private and public sectors work together to foster the province's economic development – still resonates with Quebeckers, no matter which party is in office.

"I think it's normal that Quebeckers – federalist or sovereigntist – have a nationalist streak," said Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the influential employers' group, the Conseil du patronat du Québec.

After the election call, the Liberal caravan is scheduled to stop at Mr. Gignac's nomination meeting on Wednesday in a bid to hammer home the economic message on the first day of the campaign.

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As he accepted his own nomination in his home base of Sherbrooke on Tuesday evening, Mr. Charest accused his rivals of striving to "create unemployment" and of putting years of careful Liberal financial management at risk.

The PQ and the Coalition Avenir Québec have been on the pre-election warpath for weeks, announcing a string of well-known candidates in recent days and trying to portray Mr. Charest as a spent force.

The Parti Québécois is arguing that the Liberals are holding the election campaign in the dead days of August because it will be harder to reach Quebeckers and remind them of a series of scandals in the province's construction industry.

"I think it is inappropriate for Mr. Charest to call an election in August when people are on holidays and less in tune with what is happening on the public stage," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said as she announced two candidates in Montreal.

Ms. Marois confirmed her intentions of holding a referendum on Quebec sovereignty, insisting that she is not afraid of consulting Quebeckers on their political future and on important political debates.

"I don't need a police escort every time I go and meet Quebeckers on the street, in stores and in universities," she said, pointing to the widespread political unrest this spring in the province.

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Looking for votes in the city's suburbs, the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec announced a star candidate – the head of the provincial lobby of medical specialists, Gaétan Barrette – and denounced the Liberal government's health-care record going back to 2003.

"I guarantee you that with Dr. Gaétan Barrette [as minister of health], all Quebeckers will have a family doctor," CAQ Leader François Legault said.

Dr. Barrette, who is aiming to unseat a PQ member east of Montreal, argued that sovereignty would be too much of a risk for Quebec.

"It would be irresponsible to put the province's economic situation at risk, because that would put the health-care system at risk," said Dr. Barrette. His party is proposing a 10-year moratorium on constitutional debates.

The CAQ is running third in the polls, but is hoping to capitalize on the current political volatility in Quebec. The party is planning an anti-corruption push in the early days of the campaign, having recruited the head of the order of engineers in the province, Maud Cohen, as a candidate. The party is set to announce new measures to deal with corruption and ethics later this week.

While he could govern into the fall of 2013, Mr. Charest is betting that a speedy summer election, waged before a commission of inquiry into corruption starts its fall hearings, offers him the best odds of becoming a four-time winner.

The Liberals are going all-in despite negative polling numbers. Mr. Gignac had won a safe Liberal seat in Montreal in a by-election in 2009, but he has decided to run in the riding of Taschereau against PQ heavyweight Agnès Maltais.

The clash in a largely francophone riding will help determine which party wins the election, as the Liberal Party needs to hold on to its seats in Quebec City to stay in office, while any PQ victory hinges on making inroads in the provincial capital.

The battle will also highlight the competing values and priorities of the Liberal Party and the PQ. Ms. Maltais comes from a community activism background and vows to fight for the city's poorer citizens, while Mr. Gignac, a former bank economist, represents his government's efforts to develop the province's northern resources.

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