Quebec's political parties are sharpening their focus to win over middle-class francophones – voters whose support will be crucial to victory in an election that has become a three-way race.
Battles are taking shape in the fast-growing suburban ridings north of Montreal and around Quebec City, home to the voters who could swing the election. And it is in these pivotal ridings where the parties are gauging the response to measures that target middle-class voters, who are often less ideological and more attuned to pocketbook issues.
On Monday, the Liberals addressed anxiety about the economic future of the province, where foreign takeovers of high-profile companies such as Rona Inc. are water-cooler concerns. Both the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec have already pledged money to prevent such takeovers, but Liberal Leader Jean Charest unveiled a twist: a $1-billion fund to help Quebec firms buy foreign companies.
For its part, the Parti Québécois zeroed in on the province's cherished daycare program, pledging to freeze the price at $7 a day and to create tens of thousands more spaces within four years.
"These are measures that help the middle class," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said, as her campaign tried to change the channel from searching questions about sovereignty and the powder keg of language politics.
On the economy, Mr. Charest promised a new law to give Quebec companies more latitude to reject a foreign takeover bid without putting it to their shareholders for a vote. He portrayed that promise, outlined in vague terms, as a way to protect Quebec jobs from foreign takeovers – but his finance minister, Raymond Bachand, appeared to contradict him.
"We will change the law so that boards of directors of Quebec companies take into account factors which go farther than the strict interests of shareholders," Mr. Charest told reporters during a press conference in St. Francois-de-la-Rivière-du-Sud. "That they can, and they must, take into account the interests of workers, and the interests of the whole community."
But Mr. Bachand compared the law to rules in 30 U.S. states, and balked when reporters asked if firms would be empowered reject a bid to protect jobs. He said it will allow the boards of companies to refuse to put a hostile-takeover bid to a shareholder vote if they feel it is not good for "commercial" reasons. "Ultimately, they can't do that capriciously," Mr. Bachand told reporters after the announcement. "They have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure they are maximizing value for shareholders."
Fears of foreign takeovers have been highlighted in recent weeks by a U.S. company's bid for Quebec hardware retailer Rona Inc.
Mr. Charest has also worked to paint CAQ Leader François Legault's party as wasteful spenders – in part by arguing on Monday that Mr. Legault had "flushed" the small-C conservative traditions of the now-defunct Action démocratique du Québec party, which the coalition absorbed.
In addition to her party's plans for daycare – a signature issue for the PQ, which introduced the program in 1997 at a rate of $5 per day, and a vulnerable area for the Liberals, who later raised it to $7 – Ms. Marois also pledged a $500 tax credit to promote learning in the arts for children aged 5 to 16.
"People who pay taxes will get a return and even those who don't make enough money to pay taxes will be reimbursed," she said.
Ms. Marois made the announcements in Terrebonne, north of Montreal, where the CAQ poses a threat to the Parti Québécois. On Saturday, she made a similar vow there to promote sporting activities. Ms. Marois's focus on the riding is a sign of the tight three-way races under way on the north shore that may well determine the outcome of the Sept. 4 election. Similar demographics on the south shore of Montreal also make it fertile ground for parties appealing to the middle class.
The last two public opinion polls showed the Liberals facing the biggest challenge to capture the francophone vote. Léger Marketing poll gave the Liberals only 18 per cent of francophone support, far behind the PQ at 38 per cent and the CAQ at 31 per cent. A CROP poll was more favourable for the Liberals, handing them 22 per cent of the francophone vote, but still behind the PQ, at 39 per cent, and the CAQ at 25 per cent. Voter volatility makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the race, with 44 per cent of those polled by CROP saying they could still change party allegiance.
In 2008, the Liberals swept all five ridings in Laval, one of province's fastest growing areas. The PQ won all but one of the 13 ridings in the Lanaudière-Laurentide region, northeast of Montreal. And Argenteuil, which had been a Liberal stronghold, swung to the PQ in a by-election last spring.
The CAQ, which is in its first election, is running its most prominent candidates in these regions.
Mr. Legault is running in a Lanaudière riding, as is Gaétan Barrette, former head of an organization representing Quebec medical specialists. Anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau is running in the Laurentide region, while the former president of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec, Maud Cohen, is a CAQ candidate in Laval.
While middle class francophone voters in the regions of Lanaudière-Laurentide have been sympathetic to sovereignty, the PQ believes they have no thirst for another referendum on sovereignty, and Ms. Marois has promoted her vision of Quebec becoming one day an independent country but given no specifics.
"We aren't talking here about a referendum. This is an election. We are choosing a Parti Québécois government to clean up corruption … to adopt social policies that respond to the needs of the families and the elderly," she said on Monday.
The ambiguity in the PQ position has left the party open to charges from the Liberals and the CAQ that Ms. Marois has a hidden agenda. But the attacks over sovereignty have failed to generate any momentum largely because corruption has become the defining theme of the campaign.