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Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault, centre, is greeted by local candidates as he arrives at a sports bar Tuesday, August 14, 2012 in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

It's a unique campaign message: A man who aspires to be premier of Quebec has compared the province's young people, unfavorably, to Asian kids.

Francois Legault says he doesn't regret suggesting this week that young Quebeckers are more interested in living "the good life" and could learn a thing or two from their harder-working Asian counterparts.

In fact, Mr. Legault said Tuesday of his observation: "I'm sticking to it."

The leader of the new Coalition party first waded into the subject during a chat with an 85-year-old man during a campaign stop a day earlier. The man had lamented the work ethic of today's youth, and Mr. Legault eagerly responded.

Mr. Legault said it was the opposite in Asia where, he said, parents want their kids to become engineers and actually need to stop them from studying at night because they nearly work themselves sick. He said if people in Asia keep working so hard while young Quebeckers just want "the good life," our society is in trouble.

Mr. Legault further explained his remarks Tuesday.

"If you have kids they'll tell you (the Asian students) are always first in class. One of my sons was telling me, 'Yes, but they have no life,"' Mr. Legault told reporters today.

"There's maybe an extreme there but, here, in some cases we're a little bit at the other extreme."

He said he doesn't blame young Quebeckers at all. He said he blames older Quebeckers, and parents, for not transmitting the values of hard work to youth.

Mr. Legault's remarks were ridiculed by his opponents, and they quickly became an object of online scorn. The French phrase for "the good life," la belle vie, became a trending topic on Twitter.

A paper by economist Valerie Ramey at the University of California at San Diego last year delved into the sensitive issue of study habits by ethnicity in the United States.

Using federal statistics from the American Time Use Survey, she concluded that Asian-American high school students averaged 13 hours of study per week over the entire calendar year — compared with 5.5 hours for white students, and even less for other students.

The comments from Mr. Legault were politically charged.

Students at universities and colleges are voting this week on whether to end six-month strikes; the turn of phrase, "la belle vie," has become famous as the term used by a tabloid columnist to deride protesters at the height of the unrest last spring.

The tuition debate has also featured questions about productivity, and whether higher fees might steer students away from social studies into the hard sciences. Mr. Legault appeared to be touching on all these themes, at a particularly sensitive moment.

Opponents said he's simply peddling junk populism.

Jean Charest, the Liberal premier, called it a symptom of a greater problem with Mr. Legault's party. He accused it of pandering to stereotypes, without offering substantive policies.

"It's frankly well beneath what we would expect from a person in public life," Mr. Charest told reporters.

Mr. Legault's new Coalition party is involved in a three-way election race.

Recent polls placed the Parti Quebecois in the lead, while the governing Liberals were in serious danger because of poor support among francophones, who form the bulk of voters in the vast majority of Quebec ridings.