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Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois waits to be introduced prior to making a speech during an election campaign stop at a CEGEP in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., Thursday, August 30, 2012.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault is being battered by the Parti Québécois leader over comments about his allegiance to Canada and for suggesting that the province could one day sign the Canadian Constitution.

Pauline Marois says Mr. Legault has become even more federalist than past and present Liberal leaders such as the late Robert Bourassa and Jean Charest. In her view, Mr. Legault shares the same conservative values as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and poses a threat to Quebec's interests.

"He has now become more federalist than all the Quebec federalists," Ms. Marois said. "He defines himself as a Canadian. He shares the economic values and the budgetary policies of Mr. Harper. And worse yet, he would even sign the constitution. We have never seen anything like this. Never before has Mr. Charest gone so far, never has Mr. Bourassa gone so far."

Ms. Marois was referring to a podcast interview with the Montreal Gazette in which Mr. Legault explained his objective of one day generating enough wealth for Quebec to shake its historical standing as a have-not province that receives equalization payments from Ottawa.

"More than that, I would say that if we are successful, my target in 10 years from now will be that we pay equalization payments instead of receive equalization payments. And I think that in doing so, we'll be in a better position to try to renegotiate an agreement where Quebec will sign the constitution."

In the podcast interview, Mr. Legault made no firm commitment to signing the 1982 Canadian constitution even after a ten-year truce in which sovereignty and renewed federalism would both be put on hold. In fact, Mr. Legault went on to say in the Gazette that "I want to define myself as a Quebecker first, but also a Canadian."

He later added, "We accept that we are in Canada and I think that we'll have a good relationship with Stephen Harper. We agree on many issues, including the economy and public finances."

The comments opened the door for Ms. Marois to attack Mr. Legault's nationalist credentials in her efforts to win support among the so-called soft nationalist vote which will determine the outcome of close races in several ridings, especially near Montreal. It was an offensive reminiscent of the one the PQ launched against former Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson in the 1994 election. Mr. Johnson had claimed to be "a Canadian first and foremost," a comment that was used against him by the PQ to defeat the Liberals.

"Ms. Marois is trying to divide Quebeckers, she is only thinking about her personal interests," Mr. Legault said during a stop in the Beauce region, south of Quebec City.

Mr. Legault said the CAQ has attracted support from all sides of the constitutional debate. The common thread, he said, is a promise to oppose a third referendum on sovereignty.

"We want to put constitutional issues aside," he said.

Mr. Legault said he will dedicate the next 10 years of his life to helping the Quebec economy and hopefully get the province to pay into the equalization program.

"It would be good for those who, in 10 or 15 years, want to renegotiate the Constitution with the upper hand," he said. "It would also be good for those who want to achieve Quebec sovereignty."

He added that Mr. Charest is making pointless attacks against the CAQ by raising questions about a hidden sovereigntist agenda in the party.

"Mr. Charest has built his entire political career on the back of separatists. Suddenly he is finding out that Quebeckers have different priorities, so he is at a loss," Mr. Legault said. "It's almost funny, but it's pitiful."

Ms. Marois said Mr. Legault's comments left her "breathless" as she spoke to a group of 300 students at a Cegep (community college) in Saint-Hyacinthe. The college was among several that went on strike last spring in protest against the Liberal government's tuition fee hike, which the PQ promises to abolish.

"Here we have a one-time hardcore sovereignist who had become a soft nationalist and who now defines himself as a federalist who would sign the constitution," Ms. Marois said. In her view, Mr. Legault has become a leader "on his knees" who was even "laying on the floor" before Ottawa with no bargaining power to defend Quebec's interests.

Her attacks on Mr. Legault were greeted with warm applause by the students who packed the college cafeteria accompanied by former student leader and current PQ candidate Léo Bureau-Blouin. It was the first time in the campaign that a party leader dared to meet students face-to-face.

Even though Ms. Marois has rejected calls by student groups for free university tuition, she faced no challenge by those in attendance. She even managed to defuse a question by an candidate from the pro-sovereignty Option nationale party demanding to know why she was defending her position rather than commit to the ideal of free university tuition.

"We just can't do it in the short-term," Ms. Marois insisted, positioning herself as a fiscal conservative in a region where the CAQ, a more right-of-centre party, was gaining momentum among francophone voters in rural regions. "We don't have the fiscal and budgetary leeway to meet this demand."

The heartfelt reception of the students could be explained in part by the presence of Mr. Bureau-Blouin, who was a graduate from the Saint-Hyacinthe college and a prominent figure during last spring's student strike when he was the president of the Quebec college student federation. He appealed to students to vote for a PQ majority government in the Sept.4 election.

"Voting for the PQ is the best guarantee for a return to social peace. The CAQ and the Liberals want to increase tuition fees that would mean more protests," he warned.

As the campaign enters the final stretch, the PQ appeared more confident than ever that it will form the next government. Ms. Marois will hold a major rally in Montreal on Thursday night before heading to the Outaouais region near Ottawa, where local polls show the PQ having a chance at winning seats in the Liberal stronghold for the first time since 1976.

With files from Daniel Leblanc

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