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La Presse editor-in-chief André Pratte, left, and Globe and Mail columnist John IbbitsonThe Globe and Mail

Throughout the Quebec election, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson and La Presse editor-in-chief André Pratte will engage in an online discussion on the issues arising in the campaign. Today they discuss the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault.

John Ibbitson: Hello André. The election in Quebec gets ever-more intriguing. Polls now show the Coalition Avenir Québec, the upstart party led by François Legault, ahead of the Liberals and not that far behind the Parti Quebecois. That could make Mr. Legault the Leader of the Official Opposition in a minority legislature. He could even become premier, if the rise in support continues or if a PQ government is defeated on a vote of non-confidence. But most people outside Quebec have little idea who Mr. Legault is. I know he was the founder of Air Transat and was a Parti Québécois cabinet minister. But now he has his own party, and says the Quebec government should concentrate on economic issues and put sovereignty on the back burner. So what should we think? Is he still a sovereigntist, or is he now a federalist? Or is he something else entirely?

André: Hello John. Many Quebeckers, Liberals and/or federalists, are asking themselves precisely the same questions that you're asking about Mr. Legault. Because Mr. Charest's Liberals have become so unpopular, and the last thing many voters want is a PQ majority, they are thinking of voting for the CAQ. But can they trust Mr. Legault not to change his mind, once in power, and promote sovereignty? Mr. Charest has even said that Mr. Legault might hold a referendum on separation.

François Legault came to politics after selling his shares in Air Transat. He now had money and lots of free time. Then PQ leader and Premier Lucien Bouchard offered him a portfolio. Mr. Legault was quite a catch, and a rarity in the PQ: a businessman! Mr. Legault was a staunch sovereigntist. In 2005, he prepared a detailed fiscal document purporting to show that the government of an independent Québec would have much more resources than the government of the Province of Québec. The study, he wrote, "dissipates the old fears about the economic fragility of an independent Québec and questions the arguments about the so-called benefits of federalism."

François Legault quit politics (and the Parti Québécois) in 2009. That is when he started questioning the usefulness of pursuing the political project of separation while there was no indication that a majority of Quebecers would agree with it anytime soon. He declared that Quebec faced other, more immediate challenges that needed to be confronted: poor economic performance, inefficient healthcare and education systems and a very heavy public debt.

A year later, Mr. Legault started to build, from scratch, a political party that would address those challenges. Separation (along with renewed federalism) would be put on the back burner for at least 10 years, while a Legault government worked to solve those problems.

Can we believe Mr. Legault when he says he will not hold a referendum if he is elected (still an improbable scenario)? I think we can, because this is the lynchpin of his platform, of the party that he has built. Many of his organizers and candidates are federalists and would not let him move back to the separatist fold.

His success – if confirmed by next Tuesday's vote – may be an indication of Quebec moving away from the separatist-federalist fault line. Not because one side has won, but because many Quebeckers do not see how this issue can be solved in the short term. So why waste time and energy on it when there are more pressing problems to be addressed?

John: I've never seen a better condensed biography of this fascinating politician, André. Thanks for it. Let's talk next week after the vote.

André: See you then, John.

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